Afghans f lood out of Iran as sanctions bite and prices rise
A BITTER wind scours the desert outside Herat as minibus after minibus drops off its passengers at a camp for Afghans returning from Iran.
Carrying meagre bundles of possessions, working men, families and even children ponder their prospects back in their homeland.
Smuggling themselves into Iran has long been a common choice for Afghans seeking money and safety, but the stream of those coming back has swollen sharply this year.
Iran’s economy is struggling under renewed US sanctions and the attraction of a country that once held the promise of a financial lifeline for poverty-stricken Afghans is waning.
The same economic woes blamed for a spate of Iranian migrants taking dinghies across the English Channel are causing a flood of Afghans to return home.
About 780,000 undocumented Afghans returned in 2018, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the highest figure since records began seven years ago.
Many had been deported after being rounded up by police, but the number of people choosing to come back doubled from the previous year, to 355,000.
Jan Mohammad, a 55-year-old from Wardak province, said the faltering economy made his life as a casual day labourer unsustainable.
“Since last year prices skyrocketed and it was impossible for us to live there,” he told The Daily Telegraph. He and his family first set out from Iran to claim asylum in Europe, only to be stopped on the Turkish border.
Mehdi, a 25-year-old, said rising prices devoured wages from his factory job in Damavand, 50 miles east of Tehran.
“During the last year or so, we could just earn enough to spend on food. It was impossible to save money,” he said.
“If you don’t work one day in Iran, you will be hungry that day and have nothing to eat. Compared with last year, prices have tripled.” Donald Trump, the US president, reimposed a range of sanctions on Iran last year after pulling out of the 2015 international nuclear deal he claimed was too soft on Tehran.
Washington has vowed to wage a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran’s economy to force it to accept tougher limits on its nuclear and missile programmes.
The sanctions have added to existing economic weakness, sending the rial into a dive and setting off galloping inflation. The currency fell 60 per cent last year and inflation is 40 per cent. Economic pain has contributed to sporadic street protests since late in 2017.
The “massive increase” in returning Afghans was “largely driven by recent political and economic issues in Iran including massive currency devaluation,” the IOM said. “As Afghans primarily work in the informal economy in Iran, the demand for this type of work is drastically reduced.”
Afghans still in Iran said the situation was driving people to Europe. “Life is even getting worse for Iranians,” said Haji Shakour in Saveh, 60 miles south-west of the capital.
“I know many Iranians who left the country and went to Europe or Canada. Sanctions have a very big impact on my life. Everything is changing; prices are getting high every day.”
The International Monetary Fund has predicted that the recession, which Iran slipped into last year, will deepen in 2019.
The US sanctions on energy, shipping and finance were only fully reimposed in November and have yet to be completely felt.
Yet those returning to Afghanistan face one of the worst droughts in decades and growing civilian casualties from the government struggle with the Taliban insurgency.
“I’m also considering leaving, but not to Afghanistan because I don’t want to go from bad to worse,” said Haji Shakour. “I may go to Turkey.”
‘I know many Iranians who left the country and went to Europe … Sanctions have a very big impact on my life’