The UN said on Thursday that hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been deported from Iran to Afghanistan this year, where many face hunger, conflict and death amid a dizzying Taliban offensive.
UN humanitarian co-ordinator Ramiz Alakbarov said 627,000 Afghans had returned to Afghanistan from neighbouring countries this year — mostly from Iran — as Taliban fighters make blitzkrieg gains against the government.
“We are witnessing the deportations and removal, mostly from Iran, of large numbers of Afghans who are returning to the country,” Mr Alakbarov told reporters in New York.
“My message to all of the neighbours of Afghanistan is to … help people to uphold their rights for freedom of movement, to the right to seek refuge and our collective responsibility to protect every human being from any form of suffering.”
The Taliban have in recent weeks seized several major Afghan border crossings, including along the borders of Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, amid offensives to recapture large parts of the country as US and international forces withdraw.
There are estimated to be more than three million Afghans in Iran — where many have no legal status or basic rights — after being displaced during Afghanistan’s decades-long war. They face discrimination and Iranian politicians have frequently pushed for their removal.
Mr Alakbarov described “intensive movements” of people along Afghanistan's borders with Iran and Pakistan, where he witnessed high rates of malnutrition and “pregnant and lactating women being in very difficult condition”.
In one extended family group of displaced, cash-strapped Afghans, four women had delivered babies in the past three months, of which only one infant had survived, Mr Alakbarov said via a video link from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Iran’s mission to the UN in New York did not immediately respond to The National’s request for comment.
Clashes between the Taliban and government forces have intensified in recent weeks as US-led international forces have been pulling out, with the insurgents gaining control over 170 districts, said Mr Alakbarov.
The worsening security situation has stoked fears of a new Afghan refugee crisis.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday met regional leaders in Uzbekistan and Pakistan, and said a conference of senior Afghan leaders would be held in a bid to solve the issue.
Diplomats have focused on pushing the rival Afghan sides towards a ceasefire, but the process is uncertain and many Afghans fear a worsening civil war or a return to rule by the Taliban, with their harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
Mr Alakbarov said he hoped for a peace deal that let Afghans keep basic freedoms.
“The worst-case scenario would be lack of such agreement and a possible civil war, continued bloodshed and continued antagonism between various factions,” he said in answer to a question from The National.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until they were ousted in 2001, weeks after the September 11 attacks on the US. They have since fought to expel foreign forces and overthrow a government in Kabul they decry as a corrupt western entity.