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Migrant Lives

The Ordeal Of Afghans Deported By Iran

Afghan refugees in Zahedan, in eastern Iran
Afghan refugees in Zahedan, in eastern Iran
Ghazal Golshiri

ISLAM QALA — It's almost midday when, under a blazing sun, the first bus transporting Afghans expelled from Iran arrives.

At the border crossing of Islam Qala, in western Afghanistan and 460 miles from the capital Kabul, two metal sentry boxes are built opposite one another. Over one flaps the Iranian flag, on the other the Afghan one. A few dozen yards from there, the portrait of Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and that of its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, are drawn next to each other on a large billboard. The two Shia dignitaries welcome travelers who leave Afghanistan for Iran.

Ghadir, 14, is the oldest of eight children in his Afghan family. His face is tanned by the sun. His hands are already calloused from the hundreds of hours he spent on construction sites. Four days ago, he was arrested while working in Qamsar, in central Iran, as police officers sought to check his residence permit.

"I'm an illegal immigrant," he says. "A month earlier, I'd paid $400 to a smuggler who got me into Iran. Where I lived in Afghanistan, in Ghor, I couldn't find any work."

The Iranian officers sent Ghadir back home as soon as they caught him. "Look at me! I've still got my working shoes and clothes on," he says, pointing to his mud-covered sneakers and his shalwar kameez — the traditional Afghan tunic — with holes.

By the busload

Since early 2015, Iranian authorities have arrested some 20,000 Afghans every month, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In Islam Qala, between 30 and 45 buses arrive every day, except on Fridays, the weekly holy day in Iran as well as in Afghanistan.

As an underage worker, Ghadir falls in the so-called "vulnerable" category. As such he was taken care of by the IOM as soon as he reached Islam Qala. He will be sent to the IOM transit camp in Herat where he will stay for the night, along with other unaccompanied minors, before departing for his hometown.

Humanitarian aid for these categories of people has been extremely reduced at the Iranian border and in Herat's transit camp. But it hasn't vanished. Instead it's been displaced — to deal with deportees from Pakistan.

Since the school massacre in Peshawar, Pakistan, in December 2014, Pakistani authorities have multiplied the deportations of Afghans. "In the first quarter of 2015, deportations from Pakistan were up 250% compared to the previous year," says Matthew Graydon, public information officer at the IOM. "This new situation made us turn our focus away from the Iranian border and we've been forced to cut the budget for Islam Qala."

No exceptions

IOM workers used to locate the minors' families and always had a social worker accompanying the children home. Now, the organization pays just for the transport, not knowing where these young Afghans will end up. Things are even more complicated now that it's summer, when Iran tends to step up its deportation efforts.

Pakistan only deports adult men. But Iranian authorities make no exceptions. Ghadir, for example, is by no means the only minor to have expelled from the country. Iran even deports underage girls, whether they're alone or not, or whether their parents have been located or not.

"In 2010, we took in a 10-year-old girl who was deported from Iran on her own," says Maryam Soltani, an assistant in the IOM's Herat transit camp. "She didn't know her parents' address in Iran, nor that of her family back in Afghanistan. She's been staying at a shelter for women here in Herat ever since."

Revolving door

Even though some of those deported say they won't go back to Iran, many believe they'll try their luck again in the future. "Unemployed people in Afghanistan know they'll find a job there, despite the mistreatments they must endure," an IOM worker explains.

There are an estimated 3 to 4 million Afghans living in Iran, the vast majority of them undocumented. The few jobs available to them tend to be both difficult, such as garbage collection.

Abidullah, 28, was arrested while he was taking his family from the central Iranian city of Isfahan, where he was working as an undocumented farmer, to Shiraz, more to the south. He doesn't rule out going back to Iran. The prospect of having to pay a hefty amount of money to a smuggler doesn't scare him.

"From here, I'll go home to Kunduz," he says. "But if I don't find a job there, I'll certainly go back to Iran."

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Why The U.S. Lost Its Leverage In The Middle East — And May Never Get It Back

In the Israel-Hamas war, Qatar now plays the key role in negotiations, while the United States appears increasingly disengaged. Shifts in the region and beyond require that Washington move quickly or risk ceding influence to China and others for the long term.

Photograph of U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken  shaking hands with sraeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

November 30, 2023, Tel Aviv, Israel: U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Chuck Kennedy/U.S State/ZUMA
Sébastien Boussois


PARIS — Upon assuming office in 2008, then-President Barack Obama declared that United States would gradually begin withdrawing from various conflict zones across the globe, initiating a complex process that has had a major impact on the international landscape ever since.

This started with the American departure from Iraq in 2010, and was followed by Donald Trump's presidency, during which the "Make America Great Again" policy redirected attention to America's domestic interests.

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The withdrawal trend resumed under Joe Biden, who ordered the exit of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021. To maintain a foothold in all intricate regions to the east, America requires secure and stable partnerships. The recent struggle in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demonstrates that Washington increasingly relies on the allied Gulf states for any enduring influence.

Since the collapse of the Camp David Accords in 1999 during Bill Clinton's tenure, Washington has consistently supported Israel without pursuing renewed peace talks that could have led to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

While President Joe Biden's recent challenges in pushing for a Gaza ceasefire met with resistance from an unyielding Benjamin Netanyahu, they also stem from the United States' overall disengagement from the issue over the past two decades. Biden now is seeking to re-engage in the Israel-Palestine matter, yet it is Qatar that is the primary broker for significant negotiations such as the release of hostages in exchange for a ceasefire —a situation the United States lacks the leverage to enforce.

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