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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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Netherlands, IOM launch Global Migration Initiative to protect people on the move

COMPASS will provide vulnerable migrants including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children access to a broad range of protection and assistance services.

 The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands launched the Cooperation on Migration and Partnerships for Sustainable Solutions initiative (COMPASS) at the beginning of 2021. COMPASS is a global initiative, in partnership with 12 countries, designed to protect people on the move, combat human trafficking and smuggling, and support dignified return while promoting sustainable reintegration.

The initiative is centred on a whole-of-society approach which, in addition to assisting individuals, will work across all levels – households, communities, and the wider communities – and encompasses the following partner countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia.

“We want to mobilize families, peers and communities to encourage informed and safe migration decisions, protect migrants, and help those returning home reintegrate successfully,” said Monica Goracci, Director of the Department of Migration Management at IOM.

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“One key component is also undermining the trafficking and smuggling business models through the promotion of safe alternatives and information sharing to reduce the risks of exploitation and abuse by these criminal networks.” Vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking and unaccompanied or separated children, will have access to a broad range of protection and assistance services such as mental health and psychosocial support, while migrants in transit who wish to return home will be supported with dignified return and reintegration.

Community level interventions will focus on improving community-led efforts to address trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and support sustainable reintegration of returning migrants. COMPASS will work with national and local governments to enable a conducive environment for migrant protection, migration management and international cooperation on these issues.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pleased to launch the COMPASS programme in cooperation with IOM, an important and longstanding partner on migration cooperation,” said Marriët Schuurman, Director for Stability and Humanitarian Aid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

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“The programme is a part of the Dutch comprehensive approach to migration with activities that contribute to protection and decreasing irregular migration. Research and data gathering are also important components, and we hope that the insights that will be gained under COMPASS will contribute to broader knowledge sharing on migration and better-informed migration policies.”, added Schuurman. The initiative has a strong learning component, designed to increase knowledge and the uptake of lessons learned, both within the programme and beyond its parameters. COMPASS will actively contribute to global knowledge that supports countries in managing migration flows and protecting vulnerable migrants such as victims of trafficking. The implementation of COMPASS is set to start soon.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, as the donor to the COMPASS initiative, pledges its active support to partner countries to improve migration cooperation mechanisms within its long-term vision. 

IOM, the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, contributes its expertise as the technical implementation partner to the initiative. IOM works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners in its dedication to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. 

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A child, 40 others drown in shipwreck off Tunisia

Photo: Mediterranean Sea

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are deeply saddened by reports of a shipwreck off the coast of Sidi Mansour, in southeast Tunisia, yesterday evening. The bodies of 41 people, including at least one child, have so far been retrieved.

According to reports from local UNHCR and IOM teams, three survivors were rescued by the Tunisian National Coast Guard. The search effort was still underway on Friday. Based on initial information, all those who perished were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand State-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year. Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority.

Prior to yesterday’s incident, 39 refugees and migrants had perished off the coast near the Tunisian city of Sfax in early March. So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020.

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UNHCR and IOM continue to monitor developments closely. They continue to stand ready to work with the national authorities to assist and support the survivors, and the family members of those lost.

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Ethiopian migrants return home from Yemen with IOM support in wake of tragic boat sinking

Yemen: Stranded Ethiopian migrants prepare to board an IOM-facilitated flight from Aden, Yemen, to fly home to Addis Ababa. Photo: IOM/Majed Mohammed 2021

One hundred and sixty Ethiopian migrants have returned home safely from Yemen today with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just one day after a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden claimed the lives of dozens of people, including at least 16 children.

More than 32,000 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, remain stranded across Yemen in dire, often deadly, circumstances.

“The conditions of migrants stranded in Yemen has become so tragic that many feel they have no option but to rely on smugglers to return home,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Director for Operations and Emergencies.

At least 42 people returning from Yemen are believed to have died on Monday when their vessel sank off the coast of Djibouti. Last month, at least 20 people had also drowned on the same route according to survivors. IOM believes that, since May 2020, over 11,000 migrants have returned to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys, aided by unscrupulous smugglers.

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“Our Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme provides a lifeline for those stranded in a country now experiencing its seventh year of conflict and crisis. We call on all governments along the route to come together and support our efforts to allow migrants safe and dignified opportunities to travel home,” added Labovitz.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on global migration. The route from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries has been particularly affected. Tens of thousands of migrants, hoping to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), now find themselves unable to complete their journeys, stranded across Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen.

While the pandemic has also caused the number of migrants arriving to Yemen to decrease from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020, the risks they face continue to rise. Many of these migrants are stranded in precarious situations, sleeping rough without shelter or access to services. Many others are in detention or being held by smugglers.

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“We cannot find jobs or food here; Yemen is a problem for us,” said Gamal, a 22-year-old migrant returning on the VHR flight. “I used to sleep in the street on cardboard. I could only eat because of the charity people would give me and sometimes we were given leftovers from restaurants. I never had much to eat.”

Since October 2020, in Aden alone, IOM has registered over 6,000 migrants who need support to safely return home. Today’s flight to Addis Ababa was the second transporting an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopians who have been approved for VHR to Ethiopia. Thousands of other undocumented migrants are waiting for their nationality to be verified and travel documents to be provided.

Prior to departure on the VHR flight, IOM carried out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel and are voluntarily consenting to return. Those with special needs are identified and receive specialized counselling and support.

In Ethiopia, IOM supports government-run COVID-19 quarantine facilities to accommodate the returnees on arrival and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation to their homes. The Organization also supports family tracing for unaccompanied migrant children.

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Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other vital assistance.

Today’s flight was funded by the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid and PRM.

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