HERAT -- Iranian security forces are rounding up thousands of Afghan refugees suspected or confirmed of having the coronavirus and forcefully deporting them to Afghanistan with no regard for international safeguards meant to protect the world from the spread of the deadly pandemic.
About 70,000 Afghans have returned from virus-hit Iran in the past 20 days, overwhelming health workers at border crossings and raising fears of a major outbreak, AFP reported Monday (March 16), citing the International Organisation for Migration.
Ahmad Ahmadi, an Afghan refugee who worked in Tehran, said that the Iranian military arrested him and his nine-year-old son and then deported them to Afghanistan through the Islam Qala border crossing.
"They deport those who appear to have signs of the disease to Afghanistan but arrest those who have the coronavirus and are in serious condition and place them in quarantine," he said.
"The Iranian forces arrested me along with my nine-year-old son and told me that I had the ... disease, and [then] they deported me," he added.
Another refugee accused Tehran of simply deporting every Afghan in sight.
Iranian security forces deport every Afghan they come across on the pretext of having the coronavirus, said Nazir Ahmad, 65, who was recently deported from Iran and now lives at a United Nations refugee camp in Herat city.
"The Iranian police arrested me and a few others, and they told us that we had the coronavirus and that we had to return to our country," he said.
"We worked in Tehran and shared an apartment," he added. "They dragged us out of our rooms, put us in vehicles and took us to the Afghan border. They told us that we Afghans had the coronavirus that infects Iranians."
The number of Afghans being deported from Iran has surged compared with previous months, confirmed Ahmad Jawid Nadem, director of the Herat Province Department of Refugees and Repatriations.
"Every day, dozens of Afghans deported by the Iranian government enter Herat Province through Islam Qala," he said. "As the coronavirus spreads in many cities of Iran, there has been a multi-fold increase in Afghans deported from Iran."
Transmission of coronavirus from Iran to Afghanistan
Iran has recorded 988 deaths from the new coronavirus since February 19, officials said Tuesday (March 17), according to AFP.
Afghanistan has 21 confirmed infections so far, most of them in Herat and in refugees who have recently returned from various cities in Iran.
Other coronavirus cases have been recorded in Balkh, Samangan, Daikundi and Kapisa provinces.
Given the explosive outbreak of the coronavirus across Iran, the increase in the deportation of Afghan refugees from Iran to Afghanistan is a matter of concern, said Dr. Muhammad Asef Kabir, deputy director of the Herat Department of Public Health.
"The deportation of a very large number of refugees poses a serious threat to public health in Herat and other provinces as it increases the chances of the further spread of the coronavirus in the country," he said. "All those who have the coronavirus in Afghanistan recently returned from Iran."
"The government of Iran must not bring those with signs of the coronavirus to the Afghan borders [to deport them] because these individuals can cause an outbreak of the virus in the community," added Kabir.
All Afghan patients with the coronavirus and those suspected of having the disease have come from Iran to Afghanistan, and the main reason behind the outbreak is open borders with Iran, Herat Governor Abdul Qayum Rahimi said at a press conference in his office on March 14.
"The origin of the coronavirus in Afghanistan is Iran," he said. "All the patients who've been tested positive for the coronavirus and hospitalised have returned from Iran. If the deportation or return of Afghan refugees from Iran continues, it will create a big threat for Afghans."
"I have asked the Foreign Ministry and the rest of the central government in Kabul to speak with Iran through diplomatic channels to refrain from deporting Afghan refugees during this critical situation," added Rahimi. "I will also begin talking with the Iranian Consulate in Herat to stop the daily entry of thousands of refugees into Herat."
Afghanistan needed to act quickly to avoid a spiraling crisis, said Rahimi.
"With the number of arrivals coming in from Iran [and] entering Afghanistan from several entry points, if we don't take any measures now and don't work together... we will witness an even worse situation than Iran has," he said.
"I am afraid... [that] a day will come that we won't be able to count the dead bodies," he said.
Lack of health services in Iran
After the outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran since mid-February, a large number of Afghans who were not deported have been returning home because of the lack of health services and facilities in Iran, said the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations.
The return of Afghan refugees from Iran has increased seven-fold since mid-February, compared with the previous months, Refugees and Repatriations Minister Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi said on March 12 during his visit to Herat.
"Every day, more than 15,000 people return from Iran to the country through borders in Herat, Farah and Nimroz provinces -- with 10,000 of them entering the country through Islam Qala [border crossing] alone," said Balkhi. "The Afghan government has been able to properly manage the return of its citizens from Iran."
According to reports from the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations, six Afghan citizens have died from the coronavirus in Iran, while a large number of them have contracted the disease, he added.
"I was very sick, but they didn't allow me to go to the hospital," said Mariam Sultani, an Afghan returnee who worked in Iran.
"There was a lot of fear and panic in Iran, and they restricted Afghans' movement in the city," she said. "When we went to pharmacies, they refused to give us medicine."
Health services in Iran have gravely deteriorated as customers cannot find medicine, and food prices have gone up many-fold, said Abdul Qadir Ahmadi, an Afghan refugee who recently returned from Iran to Herat Province.
"The government of Iran took three of my friends who contracted the coronavirus, and they never came back," he said. "I have no clue where the government took them, or whether they are alive or dead."