Broken on the Border
It's the world's untold migration crisis. Every day, up to 1,000 dazed and confused Afghan migrants, some carrying serious injuries, arrive on buses from Iran at the remote Islam Qala border crossing. Over 250,000 have crossed since the start of 2016. They tell stories of theft, beatings, exploitation and abuse. Some labour migrants have been paid in heroin and are now addicted, cast off by their employers. Some are mere kids: teenagers turned breadwinners. There are single women, elderly people, and Afghans born as refugees in Iran. IOM and the Afghan Government help them to get back to their home towns, but most are going back to abject poverty, joblessness and the horrors of war.
By Joe Lowry and Nasir Haidarzai
The 120 day wind
Alexander the Great felt it.
Ghengis Khan felt it.
Throughout history, the hot, dusty 120-day wind has blown across the Iranian Plateau and into Afghanistan from May to September.
Now it's our turn to feel it. As we drive from the ancient city of Herat, through Islam Qala, with its ramshackle mud-houses reminiscent of beehives or bunkers, the sky suddenly darkens. A wild dustcloud swallows up our armed escort. For a long moment we are stuck inside this amorphous, cloying fog as the sand zings and the wind roars over our vehicle.
The sky clears and we see two fluttering flags: Afghani and Iranian. We are at the border. The dust devils recede and we see the open plain, and a crusty ruck of mountains shimmering in the distance. The hot dry wind howls on.
We are here to witness the International Organization for Migration (IOM)'s Cross Border Return and Reintegration programme in action. It's carried out on a shoestring, working closely with the Afghan Government's Directorate for Refugees and Repatriation.
Returnees - both spontaneous and deported - have been arriving all morning, on buses from Iran, as they do every day. Between 700 and 1,000 are processed here each day - a quarter of a million since the start of 2016. Some hurry through, their bags hoisted high on their shoulders. Others look shell-shocked, blinking in the bright sun.
An exercise in triage begins. IOM and Afghan Government staff begin to check the new arrivals. Some rush by, neither wanting nor needing assistance. But the majority will require help. There's a child with a bullet-graze on his back. A man with a cicatrix of scars across his head from a car accident. Another moaning quietly, his shattered wrist swollen to twice its normal size.
The sounds of Afghanistan's offical languages, Pashto and Dari, blend on the breeze with Uzbek, Turkmen, Tajik, Nuristani, Balochi, Kyrgyz and Pamiri. The faces are varied - from brown almond-shaped eyes, to blue-eyed blonds - from redheads and grizzled graybeards to callow youths. A true cross-section of this troubled but noble land.
The majority are young men, but there are also single women, and young teenage boys, sent from the furthest corners of strife-torn Afghanistan by mothers who cannot afford to keep them, who need their babies to become breadwinners. We talk to a 13-year-old boy from Badakhshan, a week's journey across the Hindu Kush, on the border with China. How did he get here? How will he get home? What terrors lurk behind those sombre brown eyes?
Another bus arrives, this one full of wild-eyed men, some slumped in their seats, others anxious. Their clothes are old and stained, their hair matted and filthy.
"Heroin addicts", observes a colleague. "You can see some are still stoned and others are in early withdrawal. It's widely reported that they get paid in heroin rather than cash. They soon get addicted and when they are too far gone to work they are rounded up and put on buses. After a while, they try to come back. It's cyclical".
Voices from the Border
Mohammed is a self-confessed heroin user from Sar-e-Pul province in northern Afghanistan. He first went to Iran in 1999 for surgery on his foot, and went back to work on construction sites there two years ago. He says he was caught by the police while out shopping in Tehran and deported. Now he says he will stay in Afghanistan, try to get cleaned up "and if I die I have no regrets."
Mohammed claims he was badly beaten in Iran and had to hand over all his money. "They search us everywhere, they even searched our socks."
After one night back in Afghanistan Mohammed was already feeling better. "We got a great welcome - I was left out from lunch but they brought me lunch to eat in the bus on the way to Herat. That's the level of service here."
Karima is from Herat province, so in theory she didn't have too long a journey to make. However, all four of her children are working overseas, two in Germany and two in Turkey.
"I was alone in Afghanistan and my children told me to come to them. I got a passport and went to Iran but very close to the border I was caught by the Iranian forces. They shot in the air. I was terrified of the sound of the gunshot and I fell to the ground."
At this stage she had been travelling for over three weeks and was close to the Turkish border. She spent eight days in custody in Iran, and claims she had to pay for transportation moving from camp to camp. She saw people being badly beaten and was happy to get across the border at Islam Qala, more than a month after she first left.
"I thank your colleagues who helped us at the spot. They provided us with clothes and bathing stuff. I had not taken a bath for the last 10 days. I was in a bad situation. I have no place here to go, my children are abroad, i will either stay in my sister’s house or my nephew’s house. They are living in Herat city. I don’t know if I should stay here for while or go to my sister's? I may consider going there maybe tomorrow."
Besmillah Mohammadi (17) came all the way from the most distant corner of Afghanistan, remote Badakhshan near the border with Tajikistan. He spent a year in Iran, doing farm work in various places. He was pleased enough with the money, when he got paid, but that was infrequent. The lack of proper documents meant that he and his group of companions were often exploited.
"We were arrested, and locked up without food and water for seven days. We asked to be either deported or released, and then they sent us to a bigger detention center in Shiraz. We had to pay for the transport ourselves."
Besmillah shakes his head emphatically when asked if he will return to Iran. He hopes to return to his job, in a Badakhshan biscuit bakery.
"I only left because I was ignorant and listened to my friends. There are plenty of under-age kids working in Iran, the employers don't care how old you are and often they don't pay you."
The migrants come in, busload by busload, and IOM's Aziz, along with government counterparts, ensure there is a hot meal ready, water to drink, rudimentary first aid, and transport on to the city of Herat, 155 kilometres east. There, IOM runs a transit centre where the migrants are given new clothes, cash for transport home, and a food package designed to last one month. That's important- when you are sent away to earn money for the family, the last thing they expect is for you to return empty-handed, just one more mouth to feed.
IOM and the local branch of the Refugees and Repatriation Ministry also make sure that single women and unaccompanied minors get comfortable, safe accommodation in the transit centre, even for more than the 48-hours on offer. If people have health issues, or mental illnesses, treatment is provided locally.
"Lastly, if we are sending unaccompanied minors home we send them with a social worker", says Aziz. "The social worker has to bring back a signed certificate showing they arrived safely and are with their family."
"A Very Worrying Phase"
Laurence Hart, Chief of Mission and Special Representative, IOM Afghanistan:
“We are seriously concerned at the dire need for protection of returnees coming in from Iran. Over a quarter of a million people have returned since the start of the year from Iran alone. When you add to that the hundreds of thousands now returning from Pakistan you can see we are entering a very worrying phase. We can assist the government in getting them back to their home places, but the needs are much greater than transport alone. Much more must be done for these extremely vulnerable migrants.”
Faces in Transit
Below, and ending this story, is a photo essay of the men and boys who came across the border when our team visited. Their faces show fear and confusion, as well as the the effects of drugs and physical absue.
You have just viewed the pictures of a dozen random men who happened to be crossing the border on the day our team visited. Ideally, each of them need individual care and attention.Many have been brutalized or are addicted to opiates. They come through at the rate of up to 1,000 a day, meaning there is barely enough time to sort out who needs specialized care and who can be simply given a voucher for bus transportation home. Mental health issues are a big concern, as are the consequences for the families and villages they return to. You are seeing them frozen for a moment, but now they are far from the border, debt-ridden, back in communities where they have no work, no access to the drugs they may be addicted to, no treatment, no future. They are unquestionably more vulnerable than when they first left home. Their broken lives continue.