HERAT, Afghanistan — To escape war and poverty, Shah Wali left his village in northwestern Afghanistan in search of a better life in neighboring Iran.
As the 28-year-old set off on his journey, he was gripped by fear.
Iranian border guards beat, shot at, and even killed Afghan migrants who illegally crossed the border. And even if he reached Iran, he would be subjected to the violence and injustice suffered by many members of Iran’s sizable Afghan community.
But for Wali, it was worth the risk.
Even if he earned a meager living, he would be able to send money back home to his impoverished family in Afghanistan’s Faryab Province, a poor, remote region that has long been the scene of intense fighting between the Islamic extremist Taliban group and Afghan government forces.
Soon after crossing into Iran last week, Wali’s fears were realized.
He was among dozens of Afghan migrants who were illegally smuggled into Iran from the Gulran district in Afghanistan’s Herat Province, located along the border with Iran. But after crossing the 900-kilometer border on May 1, he said the group of around 50 Afghans were stopped and detained by Iranian border guards.
For the next several hours, they were questioned, repeatedly beaten, and then tortured. The guards, he said, then transported the group by bus to the banks of the Harirud, a 1,100-kilometer-long river shared by Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan.
“After torturing us, Iranian border guards fired their guns and ordered all of us to jump into the river,” Wali told RFE/RL.
“While we were struggling for our lives and drowning in the river, they were laughing,” he said.
The river took them downstream toward Afghanistan.
Wali said he and 11 others swam to safety. He said 23 others drowned. He helped retrieve the bodies of seven of them.
‘Very Serious Human Rights Violation’
Afghan authorities on May 2 launched an investigation into the claims and started a hunt to retrieve the bodies of the many still missing. Officials said there were 70 Afghans in the group.
Afghan health officials said they had so far received the bodies of 12 Afghan migrants, saying most had drowned.
On May 3, Abbas Musavi, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, denied the “incident” took place on Iranian soil, although he added that Tehran had launched an investigation into the claims.
But Afghan officials pointed the finger at Iran, with which Afghanistan has deep cultural, linguistic, and historical ties.
Abdul Ghani Noori, governor of Herat’s Gulran district, accused Iranian security forces of beating the Afghan migrants with shovels before sending them into the river.
Herat Governor Sayed Wahid Qatali blamed Iranian security forces in a tweet on May 3.
“Our people, who you put in the river, were not Osama [bin Laden]. One day we will settle this.”
Qatali was referring to the late founder of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group. Afghan migrants and refugees in Iran are often blamed for insecurity or of being terrorists.
Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission said it had spoken to survivors who accused Iranian forces of beating and torturing them.
“They were made to cross the Harirud River. As a result, a number of them drowned and some survived,” it said in a statement on May 3.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said on Twitter on May 4 that it shared “the concerns of the Afghan government, civil society, and people about reports of killings and abuse against Afghan migrants along the border with Iran.”
“Iran’s cruel treatment and abuse of Afghan migrants alleged in these reports is horrifying,” Alice Wells, the acting U.S. assistant secretary for South Asia, added on Twitter. “Those found guilty of such abuse must be held accountable.”
If proven, the actions of the Iranian border guards would amount to “a very serious human rights violation,” said Human Rights Watch, calling for a “thorough investigation” into the “shocking” allegations.
International human rights groups have documented violations against Afghan refugees and migrants in Iran, including physical abuse, detention in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, forced payment for transportation and accommodation in deportation camps, slave labor, and the separation of families.
In December 2018, a viral video appeared to show an Iranian police officer slapping, insulting, and humiliating a group of Afghan migrants.
The United Nations estimates the number of Afghan citizens in Iran at just under 1 million. Tehran puts the figure of documented and undocumented Afghan refugees and migrants closer to 3 million.
For decades, Afghans weary of war and poverty have turned to Iran to earn a living. Tehran has expelled many Afghans, who are often blamed for insecurity and unemployment, and periodically threatens those who remain with mass expulsion.
Many other Afghans moved to Iran following the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the long civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal.
Others sought refuge in Iran after the fundamentalist Taliban took power in Afghanistan. After the U.S.-led invasion that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, some Afghans left for Iran in search of jobs, although hundreds of thousands of them returned last year amid a crippling economic crisis in the country.
So far in 2020, it is estimated that some 270,000 Afghans living in Iran have returned home due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Iran very hard. But as the outbreak has eased in Iran in recent weeks, Afghans have begun returning to Iran.
Many Afghans take on menial work that is of little interest to Iranians.
In 2015, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree allowing all Afghan children to be allowed an education. But Afghans are still denied basic services, including access to health care, jobs, and housing.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.