Bilal Mohammadi sits protectively close to his younger brother Abdul in a large crowded hall filled with loud chatter from hundreds of Afghans surrounding them.
Most of the surrounding crowd at the refugee reception centre at Zero Point on the western borders of Afghanistan in Herat Province, comprises of Afghan men, women and child refugees, who just like the Mohammadi brothers, are being deported from Iran where they fled to escape increasing violence and poverty in their native Afghanistan.
“Our parents sent us to Iran to work. One of our uncle’s lives in Delijan and promised us work. I left first, and then arranged for my younger brother to follow,” says Bilal, 13, clutching a small bag of the only belongings they were able to grab when they were arrested.
Twelve-year-old Abdul also carries a large plastic bag, containing a blue synthetic mink blanket.
“It was 2am when the police broke into our room to arrest us. It was very cold so they let us bring the blanket along,” he says, the trauma of the detention process clearly audible in his soft voice.
The UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates there are close to two million undocumented Afghan migrants in Iran.
The World Bank recorded a slump in Afghan economy in 2018, with the economic growth at an estimated 1.8 per cent. This in turn has also resulted in the record high unemployment, peaking at 30 per cent in 2018, International Labour Organisation figures found.
Over the past two years, the Iranian government has deported hundred thousands of Afghans who chose their western neighbour as an escape from growing insurgency, and in search of employment.
For many Afghan refugees, Iran is also seen as a viable route towards Europe.
In 2018, the IOM reported a massive spike in returns at nearly 770,000 returnees, compared with 466,303 returns in 2017. While this year the number is significantly lower, 250,000 people have been returned so far in 2019. IOM officials say the spike is die to Iran’s own economic stress, sparked by the stranglehold of US sanctions, as well as changing political relations between Iran and Afghanistan.
In just one week during The National’s reporting in December, 5,487 Afghans were deported through the Islam Qala border crossing, on the western borders of Afghanistan in Herat province.
The Mohammadi brothers, who hail from Herat, a province close to Afghanistan’s western border with Iran, are among the 1760 unaccompanied minors who were sent back this year.
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