Iran braces for refugee influx from Afghanistan

by Sami Burgaz
With Taliban takeover, fearing reprisal, Afghan soldiers and civilians are rushing to seek refuge in Iran.

TEHRAN, Iran (AA) – Many Afghan soldiers and civilians have sought refuge in Iran over the last two weeks, since the Taliban started rapidly taking over provinces on their way to seizing the capital Kabul.

In the first week of August, a cavalcade of military vehicles carrying Afghan soldiers crossed over to Iran, when the Taliban besieged the southwestern Nimrouz province.

Iranian officials said the civilians and soldiers have continued to cross the border over the past two weeks from different border points. Iran has beefed up security along its 921 kilometers (572 miles) border, which has been allegedly a route for illegal migration and drug trafficking.

While Iran has stopped issuing visas to Afghan nationals, it has set up temporary camps in three border provinces to host refugees. It is believed that many refugees have made their way into different Iranian cities with the help of smugglers and human trafficking agents.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, a 36-year-old refugee from Afghanistan’s Ghazni province said that before reaching Iran, her group had to walk on foot for hours, braving intense heat and hunger.

Accompanied by his wife and eight-year-old son, the refugee, who wanted to remain anonymous said he left his hometown of Jaghori in Ghazni two days before the Taliban encircled the provincial capital.

“I left my home, my belongings, my roots, because of my family. I don’t care who rules Afghanistan but our experience of the Taliban regime has not been good,” he said.

Iran is home to one million registered Afghans in addition to over two million undocumented refugees, according to UN Refugee Agency.

A vast majority of them, displaced by war in their home country, live in major Iranian cities like Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan, Qom, and Kerman and work as manual laborers.

As per UN data, around 400,000 Afghans have been displaced since the start of the year, with almost 300,000 of them fleeing since May when the Taliban launched its large-scale offensive.

Return of exodus

Many Afghan refugees staying in Iran over the past few years had started returning to their country in the wake of the battered economy in Iran due to US-led sanctions and COVID-19 crisis.

But, with the return of the Taliban, the exodus has once again started.

“I had been planning to go back to my home in central Bamyan province after almost a decade, but the plan is shelved now,” Mohammad Nazari, who holds a refugee card, told Anadolu Agency.

With more refugees heading to the Iran border, smugglers are doing a roaring business.

A smuggler told Anadolu Agency that he has been ferrying thrice the number of Afghan refugees in the past few weeks, charging 3 to 4 million tomans ($150) from the border to Tehran, via Kerman.

He said that some of them opt to stay in Iran, while some prefer to take the more exhausting route to Turkey and move further to Europe, which is an “expensive proposition” and “fraught with danger”.

He added that the journey across Iran is “equally perilous”, which can take days by car through marshlands and deserts, dodging security forces, before reaching the final stop.

Iran’s relations with Afghan groups

Iran has maintained close contacts with both of the warring Afghan sides in recent years, and it was quick to welcome efforts toward smooth transfer of power in Kabul after the Taliban’s takeover.

“Iran seems to have switched from seeing Taliban rule as unacceptable, as it did in the 1990s, to approach them as they do with many terrorist and suspect groups. That being, mainly, to establish contact with them but also to create leverage against them,” said Alireza Ahmadi, a strategic affairs analyst.

He said that the Taliban have given assurances to Iran that its interests will not be harmed.

In 1998 Iran had the then Taliban regime had come to the verge of military confrontation when eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist were killed at the Iranian consulate in the Afghan city of Mazar-i Sharif.

In recent years, with Iran’s increasing tensions with the US and the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan, Iran’s contacts with the Taliban have gradually increased, with top group leaders visiting Tehran.

Iranian officials have called for an “inclusive” government in Kabul, with the participation of all political and ethnic groups, including the Taliban, while the group has pledged not to harm Iranian interests.

On Monday, Iran’s newly-elected President Ebrahim Raeisi said the transfer of power in Kabul presents an “opportunity” to “restore life, security, and lasting peace” in the country, which was an indirect way to welcome the Taliban rule and the end of US influence in the country.


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