'I am Burning’: The Deadly Treatment of Afghan Refugees in Iran

Burned, Drowned, Persecuted, Forcibly Deported and Used as Political Pawns

“Bring Some Water; I’m Burning!” became a rallying cry for justice after a minute-long video, which went viral on social media, shows a harrowing scene in which a boy is seen begging for help after Iranian police are purported to have shot a car carrying Afghan migrants, causing it to explode in flames. Three passengers were killed while five others were hospitalised with burns. A video showed at least one of the injured handcuffed to a hospital bed. The incident on June 5 came a month after Afghan officials said Iranian border guards killed 45 Afghan migrant workers by forcing them at gunpoint into a river along the two countries' 900-kilometer frontier.   The two events have triggered a wave of outrage with Afghans taking to the streets and social media to denounce Iranian authorities, rekindling a long-running debate about the plight of Iran's sizable Afghan community. Some Afghans have made comparisons with police brutality in the US, which has triggered worldwide protests in recent weeks "Afghans are burnt to death and thrown into water by the Iranian regime. There are tens of Afghan #GeorgeFloyd every week in Iran. Human rights violations by the Iranian regime are extremely alarming," tweeted Hamid Hatsaandh, who describes himself as an activist. DECADES OF DISPOSSESSION Forty years ago, Afghans began fleeing the violence in their country and seeking refuge across nearby borders. More than 400,000 people fled the violence of the Communist-led Taraki and Amin government, crossing over into Pakistan. The numbers progressively swelled after the Soviet invasion on Christmas Eve in 1979. By the end of 1980, there were more than four million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Over the next four years, that number grew further still, creating one of the world’s largest and longest refugee situations with Iran becoming to the second largest population of Afghan refugees, after Pakistan. Today, Iran is home to nearly 3 million Afghans, including 1.5 to two million who are “undocumented”, According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates, – many of whom have been in Iran for the past forty years. In recent years, Iran has been the source of the highest number of returns to Afghanistan. In 2019 alone, a total of 451,073 Afghans returned from Iran. The year 2018 saw 770,000 of them returned to Afghanistan, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Many of the returnees are forced through deportation. Abdul Ghafoor, Director at Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organisation (AMASO), in Kabul told The National that those deported to Afghanistan are in a very vulnerable situation. “They have no social network or support, no money feed themselves, no place to go to. I have seen many cases where we had boys who were forced to live under the bridges in Kabul after their deportations, leaving them vulnerable to negative elements of society.” The principal reason for the staggering numbers, according to the IOM, was “driven by recent political and economic issues in Iran, including massive currency devaluation”. Most Afghans are employed in informal sectors of the Iranian economy. Iran’s economy has been squeezed since President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran last year after pulling out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. The effect of these sanctions on Iran is having a serious effect on Afghans trying to make a living there. When the coronavirus outbreak hit Iran—which has the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the Middle East— almost than 200,000 Afghans have fled the outbreak convulsing the Islamic replubic to return home to Afghanistan in one of the biggest cross-border movements of the pandemic. The wave of returning labourers and refugees -  who are going back untested and unmonitored to cities, towns and villages around the country — brought new infections with them to the conflict-ridden and impoverished country, exacerbating Afghanistan’s own economic and humanitarian situation. Underlining the concerns is the fact the Herat province bordering Iran, a transit point for many of those crossing, became a hotspot for COVID-19 in Afghanistan. Afghan Health Minister Ferozudin Feroz and other Afghan officials expressed concern that Iran would push out the more than 1 million Afghans working illegally in the country. But as restrictions ease in badly hit Iran, many are looking to move to Tehran as they flee political and economic hardship, often making multiple attempts to get into Iran. Others cross into Iran for seasonal work and return home after earning some money. Afghans who cross the border into Iran endure inhumane treatment from smugglers and often lose their savings in the process. They are usually dropped off at Iran at Islam Qala border crossing — nicknamed “Zero Point”, a neutral spot between the two countries. Deportees are subject to torture and other forms of human rights abuse from Iranian authorities, especially, when tensions are high between the two countries. UNWELCOME GUESTS Iran has long faced criticism over its treatment of Afghan refugees. Human Rights Watch(HRW) has said that the government’s policies toward its Afghan refugees and migrant population “violate its legal obligations to protect this vulnerable group from abuse”. Iranian forces deport thousands of Afghans summarily, “without allowing them the opportunity to prove they have a right to remain in Iran, or to lodge an asylum application.” The international non-government organization documented violations including “physical abuse, detention in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, forced payment for transportation and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, and forced separation of families” and said it is “particularly concerned about the Iranian security forces’ abuses against unaccompanied migrant children – who are traveling without parents or other guardians – a sizable portion of Afghan migrant workers and deportees. HRW also reported that the Iranian government also failed to take necessary steps to “protect its Afghan population from physical violence linked to rising anti-foreigner sentiment in Iran, or to hold those responsible accountable.” Afghan refugees complain that their children face bureaucratic obstacles that prevent their children from attending school, in violation of international law, and say they feel subject to discrimination and prejudice when seeking health services. 27 out of 31 provinces have partial or complete bans on the residence of Afghans, preventing Afghans from moving freely and seeking opportunities for livelihoods.  Vulnerable Afghan refugees have been primary targets for Tehran looking for military manpower in its support for Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war. Since 2013, Iran has supported and trained thousands of Afghans, at least some of them undocumented immigrants, as part of the Fatemiyoun division, a group that an Iranian newspaper close to the government describes as volunteer Afghan forces, to fight in Syria. Many signed up by the promise of a few hundred dollars a month or obtaining legal immigration status in Iran. In 2017, HRW reported that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has recruited Afghan immigrant children living in Iran to fight in Syria. Afghan children as young as 14 have fought in the Fatemiyoun division. Under international law, recruiting children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities is a war crime. Human rights groups have described Tehran’s use of Afghans and other foreign fighters as a tactic to save Iranian lives and silence domestic criticism of its involvement the Syrian war. POLITICAL LEVERAGE Critics say the presence of the Afghan community has frequently been used as political leverage by Iranian authorities, accusing Tehran of using the threat of mass deportation of Afghans as a means of coercing the Afghanistan to adopt policies favourable to the Islamic Republic. HRW has described Iran’s use of Afghan refugees and migrants as a “political football” – a way to punish the Afghan government and demonstrate to the US its enduring capacity to exert its influence over Afghanistan despite the huge US engagement there. The report published in 2013, said that the relationship between Afghanistan and Iran is characterised by a power imbalance. “The Afghan government is struggling desperately, and often failing, to manage the humanitarian, economic, security, and governance challenges it already faces. The addition of a new flood of returning Afghans, many of them without financial means or a home in Afghanistan to return to, would add another burden that the Afghan government is fully unprepared to manage at present or for the foreseeable future,” the report said. Fatemeh Aman, is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council, says that resentment is also fueled by drug trafficking from Afghanistan into Iran, “which has made Iran a primary route for drug smuggling to Europe and the rest of the world. Most refugees and migrants are hard-working people who have nothing to do with trafficking. However, this vulnerable minority makes the perfect scapegoat for Iranian authorities’ failure to stop the drug trade.” Another source of resentment is the ongoing Iranian-Afghan dispute over trans-boundary waters. “Iran’s disastrous water management and dam building have contributed to water shortages along with climate change. Tension over water impacts Afghan refugees and migrants. A Majlis representative from Iran’s Khorasan province said some time ago: “We have close to 4 million Afghans in Iran. If each person uses daily 100 liters of water, the Afghans living in Iran use 400 million liters.” Afghanistan’s own dam building projects, such as the Salma Dam on the Harirud, have added to Iranian-Afghan tensions,” she said.