As Iran-Taliban tensions rise, Afghan migrants in powder keg

Afghan refugee Zahra Husseini and her children Salehe, center, and Shahrzad sit in their room in a poor suburb of Tehran, Iran, April 21, 2022. The Taliban operatives who killed her militant husband offered Husseini a deal: marry one of us, and you will be safe.  Husseini, 31, decided to flee to Iran.  (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Afghan refugee Zahra Husseini and her children Salehe, center, and Shahrzad sit in their room in a poor suburb of Tehran, Iran, April 21, 2022. The Taliban operatives who killed her militant husband offered Husseini a deal: marry one of us, and you will be safe. Husseini, 31, decided to flee to Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

PA

The Taliban members who killed her militant husband offered Zahra Husseini a deal: marry one of us and you’ll be safe.

Husseini, 31, decided to flee. Across stretches of anarchic plains, she and her two young children trekked on foot, motorbike and truck until they reached Iran.

As Afghanistan plunged into economic crisis following the withdrawal of US troops and the Taliban’s seizure of power, the 960 kilometer (572 mile) long border with Iran has become a lifeline for Afghans who s smugglers were crammed into the vans in desperate search of money and work.

But in recent weeks, crossing the desert, long a dangerous corner of the world, has become a growing source of tension as around 5,000 Afghans cross it every day and neighbors – former enemies who trade fuel, share water and have a tortured history – navigating an increasingly charged relationship.

In recent weeks, skirmishes have broken out between the Taliban and Iranian border guards. Afghans from three cities have rallied against Iran. Protesters threw rocks and set fires outside an Iranian consulate. A series of fatal stabbings, allegedly by an Afghan migrant, at Iran’s holiest shrine has sent shockwaves through the country.

Political analysts say that while the two nations do not want an escalation, the long-simmering hostilities risk spiraling out of control.

“You have one of the worst smoldering refugee crises in the world, unfolding on a daily basis and in historic enmity,” said Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “Earthquakes will happen.

The perils are personal for Afghans crossing the border like Husseini. Since the Taliban takeover, Iran has stepped up its deportations of Afghan migrants, according to the UN migration agency, warning that its sanctions-hit economy cannot handle the influx.

In the first three months of this year, deportations from Iran jumped 60% each month, said Ashley Carl, the agency’s deputy chief of mission in Afghanistan. Many of the 251,000 people who have returned from Iran this year bear wounds and scars from an arduous journey, he said, having survived car crashes, gunshots and other hardships.

Roshangol Hakimi, a 35-year-old woman who fled to Iran after the Taliban took over, said smugglers held her and her 9-year-old daughter hostage for a week until that his relatives pay a ransom.

“They were feeding us with polluted water and hard, stale bread,” she said. “We were dying.”

The lucky ones land in the jumble of Tehran, squeezing through damp, crowded alleyways. Iran estimates that at least one million Afghans have sought refuge in the country in the past eight months.

Like many, Husseini lives in a legal vacuum, vulnerable to harassment and exploitation. His boss at the tailor refuses to pay his salary. His landlord threatens to evict him. She can barely muster enough money to feed her children.

“We have nothing and nowhere to go,” she said from a cramped room in southern Tehran, furnished only with a gas heater, chairs and a few velvet blankets.

As more and more Afghans arrive, helping them becomes more difficult. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh lamented last month that “waves of displaced Afghans cannot continue to Iran” because “Iran’s capabilities are limited”. Unemployment among Iranian youth exceeds 23%. Iran’s currency, the rial, has shrunk to less than 50% of its value since 2018.

“The biggest challenge is that Iran is not ready for the new refugee situation,” Tehran-based political analyst Rea Ghobeishavi said of the growing friction between Afghans and Iranians.

Iran has grown more anxious as a series of bloody attacks in Afghanistan targeting the country’s Shiite Hazara minority make it clear that extremist threats are proliferating despite Taliban promises to provide security.

“There are reports that some extremists are easily entering Iran with refugees,” said Abbas Husseini, a prominent Afghan journalist in Tehran, describing growing paranoia in Iran.

Last month, Iran’s holiest Shia shrine in the northeast city of Mashhad turned into a scene of carnage when an assailant stabbed three clerics, killing two – a rare act of violence inside the enclosure. The attacker was identified in the media as an Afghan national of Uzbek origin.

In the days that followed, a wave of videos campaigning against Afghan refugees flooded Iranian social media. Impossible to authenticate, the grainy clips – footage showing Iranians insulting and beating Afghans – were dismissed as misleading in Iran, but in Afghanistan they made headlines, stoking public fury.

Demonstrators attacked the Iranian consulate in the western city of Herat with stones and protested against the Iranian embassy in Kabul. “Stop killing Afghans,” pleaded protesters in the Afghan capital. “Death to Iran,” chanted crowds in Herat and Khost province, in the southeast of the country. Iran suspended all diplomatic missions in Afghanistan for 10 days.

Even as the door of his consulate smoked, Iran’s special envoy for Afghanistan swerved. Hassan Kazemi Qomi blamed the escalating tensions on a vague “enemy” seeking to subvert relations between the nations. Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi expressed his concerns to the Iranian ambassador.

“The mistreatment of Afghan refugees in Iran negatively affects relations between the two countries…allowing antagonists to conspire,” Muttaqi said.

His cautious tone betrays a troubled history.

In 1998, Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban after 10 of its diplomats were killed when their consulate in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif was stormed. But after the US-led invasion, Shia leaders in Tehran grew wary of the US military presence on their doorstep and took a more pragmatic stance towards the Sunni militant group.

Now, analysts say, with the two nations cut off from the global banking system and starved for cash, they have come to depend on each other. Neither wants to see tensions rise further.

“Thanks to its neighbors, Iran can break sanctions, exchange currencies, barter and keep its economy alive,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

But neighbors nearly came to blows last week when Taliban guards tried to pave a new road across the border. Iranian guards are on high alert. The vital crossroads closed.

Aware of the stakes, countries are vigorously pursuing diplomacy. Last week, Khatibzadeh promised that Tehran would accredit Taliban diplomats for the first time to help handle mountains of consular cases. Taliban officials visited the capital to discuss Iran’s treatment of Afghan refugees.

Many of these refugees fleeing repression and misery in Afghanistan harbor humble dreams: to make it as construction workers, factory workers and agricultural laborers in Iran.

Others, like Hakimi’s 9-year-old daughter, Yasmin, hope to continue to Europe. She fantasizes about Germany. Her father, a policeman killed by the Taliban in Logar province, instilled in her the importance of education, she said.

“We don’t want to have a bad future,” Yasmin said from her dilapidated apartment in Tehran. “We want to become literate people, like my father.”

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DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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