Afghan migrants face systematic brutality from Iranian border guards and police, clearly demonstrated by the deaths of at least 21 Afghans in May and June.
Beyond the horrific deaths of the migrants, the events have also increased pressure on the two countries, both politically and in terms of the social interactions and relationships between Afghan and Iranian nationals.
According to eyewitness accounts, On May 1, 2020, Islamic Republic of Iran border guards forced dozens of Afghan migrants to jump into the Harirud River. At the time, it was reported that 18 people died. Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission and Afghan officials later said at least one child had also been killed in the incident.
One month later, on June 3, 2020, the news that a car carrying Afghan migrants had been targeted by Iranian police and that three people had burned to death sparked outrage among Afghan citizens.
The Islamic Republic denied the involvement of border forces in the May drowning incident, and tried to justify its actions in Yazd, and both responses were backed up by reports in domestic media. Nonetheless, relations between the two countries continued as normal, while Iranians and Afghans expressed sadness and anger on social media.
In its acknowledgment of the Yazd tragedy, the Islamic Republic justified the police’s action, stating that officers had suspected that the people in the car were transferring illegal drugs.
Since the events, several Afghan migrants and asylum seekers have given their accounts of violence at the border, posting text, photographs and videos, of similar experiences. Some also pointed to the systematic violence used by the Islamic Republic against Afghan nationals within Iran, and to the denial of their rights. In particular, they have pointed to the practice of denying Afghan immigrants who do not have identity documents, including children, the right to education.
Left to Freeze
IranWire has published dozens of accounts of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers who have been subjected to violence from border guards. They have told their stories of horrific treatment by guards and members of the military, but also by human traffickers, and of the treacherous routes they traveled to get into Iran. Many risk their lives to earn a living, forced by the high unemployment in Afghanistan, as well as war and insecurity, to put their lives in the hands of traffickers so they can work in Iran.
Hassan is one of them. Following the recent events in Iran, he told IranWire about his experience of border clashes. During his 33 years, he said, he has traveled to Iran several times, both legally and illegally.
In winter 2015, Hassan planned to travel to Iran with friends. They entered Iran from the border town of Herat on what he described as a bitterly cold February night, and soon encountered border guards: "When we realized they were approaching us, we fled, but about 10 policemen shot at us and we had to stop. They were in a car and shot at our legs to force us to run. It was nighttime, and I don't remember how far we ran, but we had to, or else we’d be shot and possibly be killed."
Hassan and his friends were arrested and handcuffed by border police at the checkpoint. "After beating and hitting us, about 20 of us were taken to a hall," he said. "They tied our legs with a rope and turned on two air conditioners. After a few minutes, my hands and feet were completely numb. Some of the younger ones were crying, and the officers stood in the corner laughing at us. For a moment I felt like I had completely lost my arms and legs. It was a very difficult night."
According to Hassan, the next morning, the 20 migrants were taken in a Khavar heavy goods truck, along with dozens of other migrants, to a police station. They were not allowed to go to the bathroom. After officials examined their documents, they returned the migrants to Afghanistan.
Hassan acknowledges the enormous difficulties of the journey, but he says he has other, more horrendous memories: "The difficulties of the routes were not important. After five years, I thank God that we were saved that night from the agents.”
Institutional Violence and Fighting in Syria
A few days after the deaths of the Afghan migrants in the Harirud River, Maryam Sama, a member of the Afghan Parliament's International Affairs Committee, described the Islamic Republic's actions as “torture,” adding: "When the Iranian government responds by shooting its own people, how can we expect them to feel sorry for our people?,” a reference to the killing of protesters during country-wide street demonstrations in November. Reuters has reported that at least 1,500 protesters were killed during the unrest.
Following the deaths of Afghan refugees during the attack on the car in Yazd, another member of the Afghan Parliament, Mehdi Rasekh, told IranWire that the Islamic Republic had a policy of institutionalized violence against Afghan immigrants.
Other Afghan parliamentarians have spoken up too, including before the recent events. Following the assassination of Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, in January 2020, Belqis Roshan voiced her protest against the practice of promising Afghan immigrants regular salaries and Iranian ID cards if they agreed to fight for the Guards, often in Syria. In an interview with IranWire, Roshan stated that at least 30,000 Afghans had been recruited by the Fatemiyoun militia to serve the Islamic Republic's interests in the Syrian war.
Also speaking to IranWire, an Afghan immigrant going by the name Aref gave his account of Afghan immigrants joining the Fatemiyoun army. He told the story of one of his friends who traveled to Iran in 2016 to work and earn a living for his family, but who he said was forced to fight in Syria: "My friend didn't want to go, he had just gone to Iran to work. He was arrested along with many other immigrants, given military and even religious training, and then sent to Syria to fight. At a time when the number of Fatemiyoun casualties was high, Iranian forces even arrested the immigrants who were trying to travel to Turkey from the western borders and recruited them for the Fatemiyoun army."
In many cases, Iranian officials’ promises of high salaries and residency cards were never fulfilled. And many others went to Syria and never came back.
Today, Aref lives in his hometown of Herat. "Since the assassination of Ghasem Soleimani, the Islamic Republic has become more ruthless with both Iranian citizens and Afghan immigrants," he said. "When I heard about the car of Afghan immigrants on fire, I imagined myself in that car. In 2018, we entered Iran from the Taybad border and traveled to Isfahan. From there, the Iranian trafficker took us in a car, and I was in the trunk from Isfahan to Tehran. In such a difficult situation, you can't breathe, let alone if there was a fire."
Aref said he had been detained several times on the border between Afghanistan and Iran, and on the border between Iran and Turkey, and that his experiences with the border forces at both points were very different. "Turkish police treat asylum seekers as human beings. Despite knowing they are illegal immigrants, they treat them as humans. But the Iranian police have no compassion. I went to a camp in Turkey twice and was deported to Afghanistan. Although the Turkish agents’ attitudes are not always very good, they are at least more respectful. They didn't even understand our language, but they were kind and did their job. The Iranian police speak our language, understand what we are saying and are aware of the reason for our migration, and they are still killing us."
Bringing the Issue to Prominence
Following the recent brutality against Afghan migrants, local and government officials in Afghanistan have begun to raise the issue to a greater degree, acknowledging that Afghan migrants travel to Iran to work and for income. It is something Aref has talked about too: "We come to Iran for halal [honest, legal] income. They [the Iranian border guards] know the situation in our country, and at least we expect them not to beat us and to treat us like human beings. They keep us in the worst conditions for several days and give us only dry bread to eat. We have to drink water from the taps in the bathrooms. One time a combat unit was brought in and beat us and held us in a large hall. Our bodies were covered in blood. Once they even tied our hands and feet. We laid on the ground, side by side, and the soldiers and officers passed over our heads and backs. If we complained of pain, they would apply more pressure by kicking us."
Aref’s story is like the stories of so many other Afghan immigrants. For decades, Iranian border guards and the police have used violence against them, and for decades the Islamic Republic has refused to accept that it was happening. Every time authorities deny their responsibility, this adds to their pain.
But now, some of Afghanistan’s politicians are taking note. In recent weeks, there have been rallies in Afghanistan, and human rights and civil rights activists have done their best to raise awareness and give voice to people’s stories. But for now, official reports from Afghanistan say hundreds of Afghan migrants cross the border to Iran every day in search of a better life, and the unofficial figures are higher. These men, women and children make these journeys knowing the risks of violence, and even of death.