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US-Iran tensions fuel Afghan returns

‘Even our Iranian neighbours were struggling. It put a lot of pressure on us.’

An IOM staff member registers newly arrived returnees at the border reception centre.
An IOM staff member registers newly arrived returnees at the border reception centre. (Stefanie Glinski/TNH)

 

The prospects of a safer life and more opportunity drew Esmat Maleki to Iran from his home in Afghanistan. Twenty years later, the fallout from rising geopolitical tensions is pushing him back.

In January, Esmat and his wife, Marsia, packed up their belongings, grabbed their three-year-old son, Osama, and started the journey back home to Afghanistan.

The family arrived on foot in Zaranj, an Afghan border town and the capital of Nimruz Province in the country’s south. They had two bulging suitcases and a shiny Spiderman backpack – Osama’s proudest, and only, possession.

Life in Iran was never easy, Esmat explained, but it has grown increasingly difficult in recent weeks: new US sanctions have sent costs skyrocketing and ratcheted up local hostility to undocumented Afghans.

“It triggered our return,” he said of the sanctions. “We just had to leave.”

Afghan returnees walk across the Iranian border into Zaranj, Nimruz.

Stefanie Glinski/TNH
Afghan returnees walk across the Iranian border into Zaranj, Nimruz. Thousands return here every week; roughy two thirds who cross have been deported.

The US drone strike killing of Iranian general Qassim Suleimani in January has driven up tensions and threatens to exacerbate humanitarian crises across the region, aid groups have warned. Iran responded to Suleimani’s killing by firing missiles at US bases in Iraq; the US in turn layered on new sanctions targeting Iran’s already weakened economy.

Afghan authorities and aid groups who work with returnees say the tensions could send returnee numbers soaring – pushing families like the Malekis home to a country caught in decades of conflict, disasters, food insecurity, and its own political uncertainty.

“It’s easy. More sanctions equal more returnees,” said Mohammed Salim, head of the provincial government’s Department for Refugees and Returnees in Zaranj.

In January, nearly 23,000 Afghan refugees and migrants returned through Zaranj or the other official border crossing further north in Herat Province, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM. More than half of them were deported.

“Most of our Afghan friends and relatives feel similarly. They think it’s time to leave.”

Esmat, 38, saw the tensions play out first hand. The value of the Iranian currency has fallen by two thirds in only half a year, he said. Market prices are rising along with healthcare costs, and jobs have become scarce.

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“Even our Iranian neighbours were struggling. It put a lot of pressure on us,” said Esmat, who worked as a construction labourer – one of the industries directly targeted by the new sanctions.

The Maleki family mostly lived in hiding, afraid to be discovered by the police, and, in recent weeks, unable to make a living.

“On the streets, we weren’t treated nicely,” he said. “There was a lot of hostility. I was constantly trying to find work, or hiding from authorities.”

Marsia, 26, believes a larger exodus is on its way among Afghans facing the same problems.

“Most of our Afghan friends and relatives feel similarly,” she said. “They think it’s time to leave.”

A new influx adds to Afghanistan’s crisis

Conflict and disaster displacement drive humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, but so do returning refugees and migrants coming home to a country at war.

More than 437,000 people were displaced in Afghanistan last year. But a similar number also returned from abroad by choice or by force – mainly from Iran, but also from Pakistan, Turkey, and further afield. Analysts say many returnees are essentially displaced when they come home, adding to the humanitarian needs.

Both repatriation and internal displacement will drive crisis-level food insecurity in the coming winter months as recent returnees compete for jobs and drive down wages, according to an analysis by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), which monitors food security in global hotspots.

The situation is volatile for all Afghans. September’s disputed presidential elections are still unresolved. The United States and the militant Taliban are holding new rounds of peace negotiations, but civilian war casualties are near record highs.

Iran has long been a refuge for people fleeing this violence, or those looking for better job prospects. An estimated three million Afghans live there – about a third of them registered refugees; the majority are undocumented.

“Most Afghans seek economic opportunities in Iran, but when work almost becomes more profitable back home, people return,” said Salim, the refugee department official. “We absolutely see numbers of returnees increase due to US-Iran tensions.”

Zaranj has become an arrival city for many of these returnees. Surrounded by flat desert in a remote part of the country, the city is comparatively safe – in no small part due to it being the country’s major drugs-smuggling hub.

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Just steps from the border, returnees first register at IOM’s reception centre before heading to their home provinces – many for the first time in years.

“I could feel the situation tense up. It was time to head home.”

Fasel Rahman, another recent arrival, has a long journey ahead to his home in the central province of Ghazni. The 40-year-old made an impulsive decision to leave after living in Kerman in southeast Iran for the past year.

“I pretty much decided overnight,” he said, sitting outside the border reception centre, a plastic bag resting at his feet: “That’s all I have.”

In Iran, he made about $5 daily as a labourer – more than he’d be able to earn in Ghazni, he said. But with costs rising exponentially, it wasn’t enough to afford proper housing or medical bills.

“I slept crammed in a room with six others; it was no life,” he said. “In recent weeks, I could feel the situation tense up. It was time to head home.”

His return cost him $25 – the price of the bus journey to the border and, before that, lodging in an overcrowded, “prison-like” deportation centre, where he spent his last night in Iran.

Return numbers are typically low in the winter months. The IOM and Afghan officials expect the numbers to rise by May; last year, more than 40,000 people a month were returning from Iran.

But not everyone is choosing to come home. About two thirds of the people who come through the Zaranj crossing are deported, and Iranian officials have threatened more deportations in response to the US sanctions.

Suleikha Naim, a 23-year-old widow and mother of four, was deported alongside her children and her brother after six years in Iran.

Sitting on the floor in Zaranj’s transit centre, where the family is spending the night before searching for a new home, Naim said that life in Iran was difficult, but she would have rather stayed.

“I didn’t dare to venture outside, always afraid to get detained by the police, but at least Iran was safe for me and my children,” she said.

Fluid migration

Many returnees aren’t sure what they’ll face when they return home empty-handed. Rahman’s home province of Ghazni, for example, has seen waves of violent clashes and displacement in recent months.

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Despite the pressures in Iran, many still choose to try their luck there. Syed Abdul Haee Sadat, the IOM’s head in Nimruz, said one million people cross into Iran at this border town every year – most of them looking for work.

“Migration constantly has to reinvent itself.”

In one part of Zaranj, drivers of three-wheelers and small trucks wait for passengers for the first leg of a frequent return journey. In the desert outside town, would-be migrants meet smugglers who take them into Iran via Pakistan to the south.

“Migration constantly has to reinvent itself,” Sadat said. “We might see more returnees now, but we also might see new migration and smuggling routes popping up later, taking people right back.”

The daily hustle continues at the border crossing outside. Petrol, food, and goods smugglers cross into Afghanistan casually, with border officials turning a blind eye. The cross-border trade is profitable for people on both sides.

In between the trucks and carts, returnees make their way home on foot – many of them having never even lived in Afghanistan.

Families, single women, and children may spend their first night at IOM’s transit centre, before being transferred to their home provinces the following day. Most single men work out their own accommodation and transport.

Inside the centre, Naim and her family are preparing to start from scratch here in Nimruz, their home province.

But she can’t find the words to describe what “home” means to her, having not set foot in Afghanistan for six years.

“Right now, all I can think of is transition, crossing borders, and starting all over again,” she said.

Source: The New Humanitarian

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Human trafficking: PJI  urges proper trauma management for returnees

The Pathfinder Justice Initiative (PJI), a Non-Governmental Organisation, has called for proper trauma care for migrant returnees to prevent them from becoming vulnerable to subsequent trafficking.

Evon Benson-Idahosa, the Executive Director, PJI, made the call at a Rehabilitation Workshop for Providers Serving Survivors of Human Trafficking held in Benin on Thursday.

The workshop was organised by PJI and funded by INSighT- Building Capacity to deal with human trafficking and transit routes to Nigeria, Italy and Sweden.

Benson-Idahosa said that a majority of returnee-migrants usually undergo different traumatic situations and needed to be properly rehabilitated before being integrated back into the society. She noted that if the migrant returnees were not properly rehabilitated, they would not be able to put into good use any form of skills acquisition or empowerment received.

“Providers serving survivors should know how to handle traumatised victims because many of them, especially females, have been raped and have gone through horrible experiences during their trafficking journey.

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“The providers should know that there are best practices in terms of handling trafficked victims; they need to use a survivor centred approach to prioritise the needs of the victims,” she said.

She called on the government at all levels to partner more with NGOs on providing best traumatic care for returned migrants in the country.

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How Nigerian-American police officer burst human trafficking syndicate in US

A retried Nigerian American Police officer, Samuel Balogun  narrated how he  burst a human trafficking syndicate that specialized in using minors for prostitution.

“My biggest accomplishment was bursting a human trafficking crime,” Balogun said.

Giving details of how he executed the task,  the dark skinned retired police officer said: “ There was a guy that was using minors for prostitution on the internet.  I have an accent and when I speak people know I am an African. So, I had to go undercover and had to call the guy on the internet.  I said ‘ hey! what is going on, I am in town. I am a truck driver and I want some girls.’ I asked  how old? He said the younger they are, the more money. I said about 15 to 16 years. He said ok.  I asked  how many he could bring and he replied two. He said which hotel was I and I gave the name to him. He told me to hang up and  he called back  the hotel. He subsequently called me and asked if I was there and I said yes. He said he would be there in 20 minutes.

“We were waiting for him to come but he was smart too. He dropped the girls down the street and made them walk to the room. The girls asked how much I was ready to pay and wanted to take off their clothes but I said not yet.  In the next room were officers listening to our conversation. When I make a signal, that means it is time for them to come in. but before you make the signal, you have to make sure they have mentioned the price, they have given the reason why they were there, so it doesn’t look like you are entrapping them.  When I made the signal, the officers burst in and arrested everybody including me.

Thereafter, Balogun said  the police  processed the girls and after that, “they said look, you are minors and we know somebody is pushing you to do this. Now we don’t want to arrest you but tell us how to get to the boss.  The girls cooperated and  made as if they were leaving. When the man pulled up to pick them up, and that was how we arrested  him. That stopped a lot of those crimes.”

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Balogun said he was in Nigeria to bring his wealth of experience to bear on the disturbing security situation in the country. “ I am trying to bring back  my experience as a  police officer in the states to Nigeria. When you look at the #endsars period, the performance of the police was something that hurt my feelings. How can we make it better? How can we make the police job something that people will look with respect  and want to join?”

He hinted that his  security firm is involved in training not only police officers but “ I also train private security companies. I am in touch with a lot of private security companies in Nigeria.  There is another concept which Nigeria is embracing right now.

“It is called community policing. In the states it is called neighbourhood policing or community policing. It works in a way that in every street, there would be a police officer that lives in that neighbourhood.   You get to know the people and the people know you. In some apartments, they will give you a discount just for the police officer to be there because they know once a police officer is living there, the police car is outside and the crime level will reduce. People are more likely to talk to that officer because they know him. They are more able to tell him’ hey we know who committed that crime.’  For every crime, you need people to tell you what happened. You can have all the gadgets but if people are not talking, you can’t solve the crime.”

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He further said: “I am training police officers, security companies and executive protection. What my security company is doing is to free the police officers from attachment to chiefs, politicians and all that.  We train civilians to represent those officers so that they can go back to the street and do their normal jobs.  We have what we call executive protection/training. We have people that follow the president.  We can train you on how to be efficient and sometimes using less force, description tactics.”

Further expatiating on what his security firm does, the soft spoken officer said: “What my company is trying to do is to bring people to the table.  We are trying to train companies that there is a better way of security where we can teach you how to defend yourself, how to prepare for any emergency, and how to use less force. I have a guy, a navy seal that worked for the United States of America. You will be amazed about what he can do. He can disarm you in a minute even when you come with AK 47.    I am also bringing Hostage Negotiation, people that can talk to you when ransom has to be paid. In the US, we call it Hostage Negotiation.  They can talk to these people, and know their psyche. It is a full package. When you come  to my firm, you can see the whole spectrum  and choose.”

As a vastly travelled person, Blagun said: “I travel a lot and in all the African nations is where you see officers with AK 47. They said it is more intimidating. Criminals use AK 47 in America too but we still don’t carry it.  Is that the right weapon for the police officers, I leave that question open. “

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On the attitude of the Nigerian authorities his plans, he said: “I have talked to a lot of people in higher positions. In some places I don’t want to mention, I have got good responses.  My firm has done some things with certain private firms and the police. I have dealt with some highly placed security firms. So, this is not my first time here.  We are   looking at having training in Sheraton around July/August this year. It is going to be a big one. I am bringing a retired FBI agent, a navy seal, a retired marine , myself and may be two other officers.

“This is my country, I am proud of it. I am sad sometimes when you look at the security aspect of it.  With my experience, I am trying to make it a better place.  It has always been my passion to come back home. I am retired and don’t really need to work again. My benefits are okay untill I die.  But why die with all this experience when I can pass it to the next person.”

 

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Hundreds of thousands of people leave Britain due to pandemic

 

Hundreds of thousands of people have left Britain as a fallout  of the pandemic on the economy, according to a study released yesterday.

There is an “unprecedented exodus” of workers born outside Britain, researchers at London’s Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence said.

“It seems that much of the burden of job losses during the pandemic has fallen on non-UK workers and has manifested itself in return migration, rather than unemployment,” said the authors.

The study is based on labour market data.

The trend was particularly notable in London, where one in five residents was born abroad.

The capital’s population has fallen by 700,000, the study said, adding that nationwide, the figure could be more than 1.3 million.

If these numbers are accurate, this is the largest decline in Britain’s population since World War II, according to the study.

No evidence suggests that similar numbers of British people who live abroad are returning to Britain.

However, this could be a temporary trend, the researchers said, noting that workers from abroad might return after the pandemic.

The British economy depends on workers from abroad and it is not only threatened by migration due to the pandemic.

Many industries fear the loss of skilled workers due to Britain’s departure from the European Union and stricter migration laws.

A further trend in 2021 is also causing concern, described as a “baby bust” by consultancy PwC, which said many couples were postponing having children due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

This could lead to the lowest birth rate since 1900, PwC said in early January.

READ  EU approves Italian aid scheme to support economy in coronavirus outbreak

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Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.

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