Nearly 860,000 Afghans were pushed home from Iran in 2020 – a record tally for undocumented migrants returning to a country mired by conflict and an economy shattered by the coronavirus pandemic.
They are among some 1.2 million Afghans who were on the move last year, including at least 380,000 people displaced by conflict within Afghanistan, according to UN agency statistics released this week.
The record return numbers underscore the difficulties facing Afghanistan as the country confronts crises on multiple fronts. Nearly half the population may need humanitarian aid this year, aid agencies say. Conflict, disasters, and the pandemic have nearly doubled aid needs over the last year.
Ali Jan Hussaini, 28, was deported from Iran in December. An undocumented migrant who first moved to Iran five years ago to flee violence and poverty in his home province of Ghazni, Hussaini now lives in a bare, rented room in Herat, which borders Iran.
“In Iran, conditions were harsh, but at least I could make ends meet,” Hussaini told The New Humanitarian by phone.
Hussaini said he bought flour, rice, and cooking oil after he was deported in December, but the supplies are drying up and he hasn’t found work since his return.
“We don’t have much to eat for dinner and lunch,” said Hussaini, a father of three. “I have not paid the rent for two months now, nor have I paid the bills for water and electricity.”
For decades, Iran has been both a safe haven for Afghans fleeing conflict at home and a destination for jobseekers. On top of some 950,000 registered refugees, between 1.5 million and two million undocumented Afghans also live in Iran, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
Returns from Iran have skyrocketed in recent years as the country’s economy spirals – derailed in part by US sanctions, then the pandemic. Many undocumented returnees say soaring living costs and growing hostility forced their returns. More than a third of last year’s returnees were deported, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM.
But they’re coming home to a country facing numerous crises magnified by the pandemic: More than 40 percent of the population faces crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity, and one in five displaced households have “catastrophic” levels of debt, according to the UN. This is on top of the country’s decades-long conflict, which kills or injures thousands of civilians each year.
“Returnees, many of whom left their homes in Afghanistan in search of safety and a way to support their families, come back to these same challenges,” said Eileen McCarthy, advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Afghanistan.
Many soon join the ranks of the internally displaced, fanning out across the country. Those who can’t return home because of the violence often move to rapidly expanding settlements circling cities like Herat, eastern Afghanistan’s Jalalabad, and the capital, Kabul.
“Returnees are uniquely vulnerable, often having lost their livelihoods and their support networks,” McCarthy said.
With few options at home, some Afghan returnees plan to make the reverse journey back to Iran or further afield. In arrival interviews with UNHCR last year, five percent of respondents leaving Iran said they intended to go back.
That’s the dilemma Hussaini now faces. After his December deportation, Hussaini sent for his three children – eight, six, and four – to join him in Afghanistan. But with no income for the last two months, and the road home to his village in Ghazni trapped in conflict, Hussaini sees himself as a “stranger” in his own country.
He believes there may be no choice but to return to Iran – which has already deported him three times in the last five years.
“There is no other way,” Hussaini said. “If I go to Iran, my children will be left without a guardian … I am taken hostage by the situation.”