Afghan Immigrants: Drowning for Survival

Marjan Greenblatt

June 18, 2020, 8:56 p.m.

On the dawn of May 2, dozens of bodies washed ashore the Hariroud river at Afghan-Iran border. They were among a group of 50 or so Afghan refugees who had boarded a makeshift boat to cross the Iranian border in search of what they hoped would be a better life. However, their deaths were not a result of the perilous journey, but of the cruelty they encountered upon reaching their destination. Unlike the thousands of other hopeful Afghan immigrants, who make it safely across the border, this group did not live to experience the life of poverty, discrimination, and violence that awaited them on the other side of the border in Iran. This group's journey concluded with a literal dead-end.  
Harrowing reports from the survivors of this ghoulish event continue to emerge. Survivors have reported that upon arriving at the Iranian border, they were arrested by the Islamic Republic border guards, stripped, humiliated, tortured and then dumped in the river.  One of the border crossers, Shahvali Taheri, told a citizen journalist at IranWire that his journeymen were crying and begging the guards not to throw them in the river but to no avail. Taheri would go on to say that "it was as if these border guards were not Muslims at all… they kissed their feet, but the officers beat them with their rifles and fired in the air. One of the officers told me they had drowned and that I should drown as well. It was as if the officers were having fun; they were drowning the Afghans and making fun of them." 
As of now, Western media has not given much attention to this story, and it has been the subject of much back-and-forth between Afghan and Islamic Republic of Iran’s officials. A spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, called the reported events a "savage and unforgivable crime" but vowed to settle this through diplomatic means. Meanwhile, Iranian officials have flat out rejected these accounts and denied the allegations against border guards. In an effort to reduce new tensions, Iranian officials are even offering to launch their own investigation into the incident—a gesture that has been welcomed by the Afghan government.
Afghan officials have asserted that this is not the first time that refugees from their country have been mistreated or killed by Iranian police.  Despite the dangers of the journey and the possibility of abuse and mistreatment at the Iranian borders and beyond, thousands of Afghans regularly seek to leave the poverty and hopelessness of their country to enter Iran. However, they pay a heavy price, with the poverty rate in Iran encompassing almost half of the population, many who arrive safely are worse off. Along these lines, smugglers charging anywhere between $600-800, leave the families of hopeful adolescents and young people entirely destitute
According to the most recent available figures, there are nearly one million Afghan refugees who live in Iran. In addition to the refugees, around 2.5 million Afghan nationals, including passport holders and undocumented Afghans, live in Iran with little to no human rights.    
Of these, one million people have residency permits, granting them the right to work, to own property, access to subsidized health care, and to enroll their children in school. These permits are meant to be annually renewable, for a small fee. However, new residency cards have not been issued since 2007, leaving nearly two million Afghans without paperwork and at the risk of arrest, deportation, and abuse.  
With current unemployment rates in Iran on the rise, rapid economic decline, and expensive proxy wars, the survival of Afghan refugees is a challenge at best. Those who are lucky enough to obtain ID cards can find dwellings, and many can work as laborers on construction projects. For the roughly one million Afghan children, social mobility is nearly impossible. Arguably they are the most deprived of human rights. Only a small fraction of Afghan refugee children can attend school; some are denied because of their lack of government-issued IDs, despite government easing of restrictions or to assist their families with day jobs. 

Thousands of Afghans, including many undocumented, have been deployed to the Fatemiyoun division to fight in Syria. Although it is hard to obtain accurate information about the number of Afghan refugees fighting Iran's proxy wars, in an interview published in the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Tasnim News, the number was officially reported as 14,000 fighters. According to Human Rights Watch, many refugees were incentivized to join the military with the promise of obtaining or extending residency permits.  
Discrimination and abuse by the authorities has persisted and cost Afghan refugees lives. With “documentation” as an excuse, institutionalized discrimination, even by hospitals, is easily practiced against Afghan refugees, to the point of determining life and death circumstances.  
Violent examples are abundant but last week, in the Iran’s Yazd Province, a vehicle carrying Afghan refugees was shot at by the Iranian police. The shooting triggered a fire killing three passengers and injuring four others. The grisly incident was caught on video and went viral. It depicted a little boy running away from the car with parts of his body burning, begging “give me water, I'm burning.” The video went viral and captured the attention of some activists and raised criticism of the Afghan government. 
Amid poverty, discrimination and despair, the threat of deportation is an ongoing concern for many vulnerable undocumented refugees. According to the International Organization for Migration, 250,000 migrants were forcibly deported. Many of the deportees are children without a parent or guardian, returning to an unsafe and impoverished country with no prospects or support.   
Interestingly, many other disenchanted Afghan immigrants have given up hope for better prospects in Iran and are returning to Afghanistan en masse. The spread of Coronavirus has many refugees choosing safety over financial opportunity, leaving the country with their health and the clothes on their backs, for another uncertain journey for survival.   
As the investigation of the drowning of the Afghan refugees in Hariroud unfolds, Iranians and Afghans leaders need to reassess national and international priorities. Particularly, as the Coronavirus casts a spell of uncertainty across the globe, lawmakers on both sides of the border need to evaluate priorities in a way that places people first. Policies of war and brutality, domestically and abroad, increase instability, cause more displacement, poverty, and now, disease.  Before more innocent lives are drowned, either in misery or the river, it is time for leaders to put people first. 

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