ZARANJ, Afghanistan—To escape the Taliban, Mohammad Taher, a soldier in the army of the ousted U.S.-backed Afghan government, fled first through the desert to Pakistan, then dodged gunfire to cross the border into Iran. There, a truck he was riding in—crammed together with other Afghan migrants—slid off a winding road and flipped, leaving him with serious injuries.
After he was discharged from an Iranian hospital, where doctors told him he had fractured two vertebrae, police deported him. It was his second failed attempt to get into Iran. Now he is in this provincial capital in southwestern Afghanistan, struggling to get around in a back-and-neck brace that extends up to his chin.
Mr. Taher, 21 years old, said he is giving up on trying to flee. “I’m going home,” he said.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Iran and Pakistan opened their doors to millions of Afghan refugees fleeing Soviet occupation and then civil war and the first Taliban regime. That isn’t the case now. Since Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, Pakistan has sealed its borders nearly shut to refugees. Iran has deported hundreds of thousands of Afghans in recent months, unwilling to consider asylum applications.
“People are simply being dumped on the border” by Iranian authorities, a United Nations official said. “The percentage of deportations is rising dramatically since the takeover by the Taliban,” the official said.
Between 2,500 and 4,000 Afghans are being deported every day by Iranian authorities and ending up in Zaranj. That is compounding an already-tense situation at the Afghan-Iranian border. Earlier this month Iranian and Taliban forces exchanged fire with mortars and machine guns after a dispute between Iranian farmers and Taliban fighters over border demarcation.
Migrants without passports or Iranian visas usually enter Iran via desert smuggling routes in the province of Nimroz, where the borders of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan meet. Returnees on the way back cross the Silk Bridge linking Afghanistan and Iran as they walk alongside fuel trucks and baggage handlers pushing rickety trolleys and wearing scarves and swimming goggles to protect against windblown sand.
From August, when the Taliban swept through Afghanistan in their final blitz offensive, through Dec. 5, nearly half a million Afghans who entered Iran illegally later returned, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration. About 360,000 were deported and 126,000 left voluntarily. U.N. officials said many of those likely returned because they feared deportation.
“I was forced to leave,” said one of them, a 23-year-old migrant named Hashim, minutes after arriving in Zaranj from Iran. Like some Afghans he uses a single name. After traveling for seven days to reach the Iranian city of Shiraz, where he ended up in a safe house with 200 to 300 other Afghans, Hashim was caught and sent to the border, he said. Iranian police confiscated his phone and the $17 he said he had left after paying smugglers to get him across the border.
“I may have to start begging to collect the amount I need to travel home,” to the province of Zabul, about 350 miles away, Hashim said.
Afghans are increasingly desperate to flee—and not just because they fear the Taliban. The U.S. has responded to the Taliban takeover with economic sanctions that paralyzed the financial system. International donors halted most aid. The Taliban have contributed to the economic meltdown by banning most women from work and education. The worst drought in four decades has made things even grimmer. All in all, the country’s economy shrank by 40% since August, the U.N. has estimated.
In total, nearly 1.2 million Afghans have returned home from Iran this year, the highest number on record, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Saraj Gholami, 67, crossed the desert into Iran in a truck with a smuggler and dozens of other migrants in late November. When Iranian police chased them near the city of Kerman, the truck skidded off a mountain road and crashed. Mr. Gholami said he broke his back in the fall.
“I only went so I could buy rice, oil and other things for my wife,” said Mr. Gholami, immobile on a stretcher at an International Organization for Migration center in Zaranj. He described how Iranian police drove him to the border in a bus for hours and then deported him. “There was no ambulance,” he said. “They told me to sit on the seat, but I was screaming in pain. Then they asked me to stand.”
Mr. Gholami, a laborer, had yet to break the news of his accident to his wife and only daughter in his home province of Ghor, about 280 miles away.
Iran’s reluctance to host Afghan refugees is rooted in a deep economic crisis of its own. In the face of highly restrictive U.S. sanctions, newly elected Iranian President
has pledged to create more jobs, boost domestic production and restrict migration.
“Now that Iran’s economy has been severely damaged by the pandemic, as well as unilateral coercive sanctions, and in recent months has hosted more than 300,000 new Afghan refugees, we are no longer able to host the displaced population,” Iran’s deputy permanent representative to the U.N., Zahra Ershadi, said in October.
Iran is also seeking to send a message to Afghans that it won’t allow a repeat of the refugee crisis in 2015-16, when hundreds of thousands of Afghans traveled through Iran to Turkey on their way to Europe, said Fatemeh Aman, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“They are concerned that Iran will become a hub for refugees the way Turkey is,” she said.
Iran and Pakistan house about 90% of the 2.6 million Afghans registered as refugees world-wide—the second-largest refugee population after Syrians, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency.
Even before the Taliban takeover, many European countries temporarily suspended deportations of Afghans, citing the quickly changing security situation in Afghanistan and an inability to ensure the safety of returnees. European states host a fraction of the world’s displaced Afghans.
Iran is home to an Afghan population of more than three million, mostly migrant workers and refugees. Many of them are undocumented, meaning they have fewer protections and are at risk of being detained and expelled. Iranian security forces routinely raid factories and businesses, rounding up those without legal papers.
Saeed Abdollah Ahmadi, a 27-year-old radiography technician from Kabul, left Afghanistan days after the Taliban takeover. His destination was Turkey, and he paid human traffickers with his deceased mother’s savings to try to get there. He said the trip cost him a total of $1,200.
Once in Iran, Mr. Ahmadi and dozens of other travelers were handed over to a teenage guide to take them through the mountains of western Iran to the Turkish border, he said. Crossing barbed wire and deep ditches, and hiding in valleys, they were caught by Turkish border guards who he said beat them with metal pipes, shouting, “No Turkey, yes Afghanistan.”
Now back in Tehran, Mr. Ahmadi has found lodging with an Afghan family. He is now looking for work while plotting his next move. “For now, I need to rest,” he said.
—Jalaluddin Nazari and Zamir Saar contributed to this article.
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at email@example.com
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