ZAHEDAN, Iran – In the aftermath of the chaotic Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, thousands of people fled over the border with Iran, escaping what they feared was a return to the militants’ harsh rule in the 1990s.
Less noticed, however – and much less expected – was the flow of Afghans going the other way.
Last year in Zahedan, an arid Iranian border town, VICE World News found 300 Afghan men and women who had been living in Iran for between the last 3 to 30 years sitting in segregated groups at a transit camp. All were eagerly waiting for buses that would take them on the 5-hour journey back home.
“The Taliban might not be our cousins, but they are our people, and we can reason with them. The security is better than before,” said Khal Muhammed, 22, an electrician who had been working in Shiraz, a city in the south of Iran, for a few years.
Many of the men gathered around him agreed that the collapsed government of Ashraf Ghani had been corrupt, and completely dependent on the US.
Zahedan transit camp sees busloads of Afghans cross back to their homeland daily. PHOTO: VICE World News
“I never lived under the Taliban rule 20 years ago to say how it was then, but whenever I went to our villages in Parwan that the Taliban controlled, the people had a better life than the people in Kabul,” Muhammed said. “No one would take away anything by force, and everyone’s honour was protected.”
The latest statistics from the UN put the number of people internally displaced following the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan at more than 700,000, and the Iranian government says 500,000 Afghans have crossed the border into the Islamic Republic since last summer. Most are Tajik and Hazara, ethnicities the Taliban have persecuted in the past.
But around 3,000 people a day – the majority from the majority Pashtun ethnic group, and originally from rural areas long controlled by the Taliban – are returning home after long years in exile.
The 900-kilometre border between Afghanistan and Iran has been porous for the last four decades, as different groups of refugees have ebbed and flowed due to the rise and fall of Kabul’s communist, Taliban and US-backed governments. In 2020, Iran hosted around 4 million Afghans, the majority undocumented.
Iran’s Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA) says that sanctions imposed on Tehran by the administration of US President Donald Trump have severely hindered their efforts in controlling the border.
In Zahedan, VICE World News observed 8 to 10 buses picking up Afghans to take them to the official Milak border crossing. In this transit settlement, a meal at the camp and transfer to the crossing is free.
Women are among those returning, despite the Taliban's anti-woman policies. PHOTO: VICE World News
A young burqa-clad woman sitting in the camp among older women and several children was reluctant to speak, but said: “We are going back because the Americans are gone, and we have all the family and relatives living in Afghanistan. We are going to go and live among our people.”
Although everyone here appears to have asked to return to Afghanistan of their own free will, there have also been accusations that Iran is pushing refugees across the border into Afghanistan.
Nabi Bakhsh Davoodi, the regional director of BAFIA, denied the claim. “We have been hosting Afghans for 42 years and will not be questioned on our efforts,” he said.
“We are an Islamic country, and the orders from our supreme leader and our state officials are to treat refugees with a humanitarian approach within the framework of international protocols.”
At Al-Ghadir camp, a stone’s throw from Zahedan, the mood is starkly different. Fatemeh, a mother of three girls, is one of the 700,000 people who left Afghanistan for Iran, fleeing because of the Taliban’s dismal record on women’s rights. “I was a maths teacher in a girls’ high school. There isn’t a future for the women in Afghanistan,” she said.
Fatemeh fled with her daughters after the Taliban swept to power. PHOTO: VICE World News
She added, “I heard that the Taliban has gone to the mosque and told the men that half of us are going to hell because of the sins of the women, and to lock your women inside the home so we’ll be saved for the fire of hell. After I heard that I gathered up everything and decided to leave.
“They say they are preparing for the education of girls, but it’s a total lie. It’s the same Taliban that won’t allow women without a male family member to step outside onto the street.”
Fatemeh’s predictions were accurate. Six months after the Islamist group’s takeover of the country, UNICEF says that 60 percent of the 3.7 million children still out of school are girls. Women are not allowed to travel long distances without a male chaperone.
Although she took nothing with her other than her children, Fatemeh may be one of the luckier people who managed to leave. Mehdi Mahmoudi, director-general of BAFIA, said Iran’s efforts to return refugees and accept new ones had been hindered by Western sanctions, which have been hitting the economy hard since 2018.
Mahdi Mahmoudi, an Iranian official, says US sanctions have hindered the country's aid efforts. PHOTO: VICE World News
“Despite little international aid and setbacks caused by unfair sanctions, the government of the Islamic Republic has provided help for people who have fled Afghanistan,” he said. “It is clear that they are fleeing difficult situations. Some stay here temporarily, then head back home. Unfortunately, some become victims of human traffickers, which is a global problem.”
The stagnating economy was one reason Afghans were choosing to go home, he said. “Only around 2 percent of the Afghan people living in Iran are hosted in-state run accommodation, and the rest live among the Iranian people. They are working, and for sure the unfair economic sanctions impact them too.”
Some migrants have been in Iran for decades with no official documentation. PHOTO: VICE World News
An elderly Afghan man, who didn’t give his name, said that he had lived in Iran for decades without documentation and was returning for a short time to attend the wedding of his daughter in Kabul.
“When you live somewhere for that long, it becomes like your country. But until now I was working as a wage worker, but I never got the chance to get an ID card,” he said.
“I’m very thankful to the Iranian people, but I never got the paperwork for over 30 years, and now it is time to go home.”