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Afghans increasingly forced to return from Iran, an overlooked population in dire need of protection

As media attention has been focusing on the border with Pakistan since last November, the steady rise in numbers of Afghans compelled to return or deported from Iran since 2021 calls for an increased attention on the western border of Afghanistan.

Afghan families leaving the Gazergah Transit Center (GCT) in Herat, January 2024

Posted on 07 May 2024

As there has not been public communication from the Government of Iran of a large-scale deportation plan, the situation has been mostly deteriorating outside of the public eye. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is conveying the voices of Afghans who faced these deportations and forced returns.

Iran has long been a destination for Afghan refugees fleeing violence, persecution, and economic hardship in their home country. Over the past decades, millions have sought sanctuary across the border.

Most of the time, Afghans go to Iran for compounding reasons, including search for international protection, physical safety, work opportunities, but also better life prospects for themselves and their families. However, with Iran facing its own economic challenges and political tensions, the situation for vulnerable Afghans has become increasingly precarious.

One fact is clear, returns and deportations from Iran are not safe, and rarely voluntary. Most Afghans who cross the border back to Afghanistan are deported, with the others finding themselves compelled to return due to the deterioration of their situation in Iran, in terms of physical, material or legal safety.

Deportations have long been carried out by security forces in Iran and have often been quite large-scale. Since 2021, the country has seen a rise in anti-Afghan sentiments, marked by an increasing trend of xenophobic rhetoric and discriminatory behaviour.

At the end of 2023, the Iranian authorities announced the adoption of stricter measures for the identification and deportation of “irregular” foreign nationals, the Interior Ministry repeating threats to expel undocumented Afghans in September and October 2023, though no official deportation plan or framework has been put in place.

As the situation continues to deteriorate, the experiences shared with DRC capture the complexity of these journeys as vulnerable Afghans who left their country of origin in search of safety, protection and a better life, are returning to a country where they are struggling to see a future.

Zubair* (picture on the left), left for Iran at barely 16 years old, in the hope to provide for his ten family members, including four young sisters (pictured on the right), January 2024

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“It was my decision to leave. Even my father told me I was too young. But my family was in a difficult situation, and this was the only way I could help them.”

When he left Afghanistan around a year ago, Zubair* took a debt with a smuggler to pay for the journey, with the dream to find work quickly, pay off his debt, and send back money to his family to alleviate their daily struggles.

At 17 years old, he is the eldest of eight siblings. He arrived to an IDP camp in the outskirts of Herat around four years ago with his parents, having left a rural province for the western city of Herat hoping to find some work and curtail poverty. And yet, they could not improve their situation in Herat and they accumulated debts, borrowing money from others and being barely able to buy enough food on a good day.

Departing to Iran is quite common for young Afghans who live near the Iranian border, with thousands going through the same ordeals due to the lack of economic opportunities in the country. 

Zubair ended up in Tehran, working in construction sites during the day, sleeping in the empty structures during the night. He was not leaving the construction sites unless of absolute necessity for fear of being arrested and deported.

It is well known in Iran that undocumented Afghans often work on construction sites, and police raids were frequent. Within eight months, he got arrested during one of these visits, detained and deported back to Afghanistan.

He stayed 5 days at a police station, where they extorted him and took all of his money and belongings. There, he told us he saw some Afghans who had been detained for months as they had nothing for the police to steal.

“If you can’t pay, they keep you until you find the money. [Then] They beat you, so you won’t come again.”

Salim, an Afghan deportee, January 2024

Salim, an Afghan deportee, January 2024

This is Salim*, 25 years old, his story all too familiar. Also displaced from another rural province of Afghanistan to Herat, around ten years ago, he became responsible for his mother and two young siblings’ wellbeing after his father passed away a couple of years ago. 

Eight months ago, he left for Iran to work on construction sites too. He managed to escape the police raids four times before he got caught and deported. He recounted the daily abuse undocumented Afghans are facing in Iran, from physical violence to verbal abuse and extortion.

As him and many others told us, undocumented Afghans in Iran “are seen with another eye”, unworthy of respect and dignity.

When asked about their future, Zubair and Salim could barely look up. Debts are accumulating and there is no job opportunity in sight for them. They see no future.

Asma* with her one and a half year-old toddler (photo on the left) and Batou* (photo on the right), 25 January 2024

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Amongst the most vulnerable forced to cross the border back to Afghanistan are also women, some of whom, by circumstances, found themselves becoming the sole supporters of their families, in countries where they face additional challenges to access services, education and job opportunities.

Asma* went to Iran three years ago with her husband hoping to find safety and work opportunities in Tehran. After her husband was arrested for driving without a license, she found herself alone with a small child and in an increasingly hostile environment towards Afghans.

She decided to go to a police station by herself and let them deport her back to Afghanistan. During the journey back, she faced extortion and violence. In the desert camp near the border where Iranian forces keep Afghans before deporting them, she met Batou*, also travelling alone with her five children, as her husband, struggling with drug addiction and violent behaviour, vanished a few months ago. In this camp, the conditions were dire:

“There was no food, blankets, or water, my children were going hungry,” Batou recalled.

For both of them, returning alone to Afghanistan was a bleak prospect, but the only move they could make. With limited support from relatives and ongoing restrictions on women’s ability to work and provide for their families, they fear it will be almost impossible for them to raise their children in a dignified healthy environment.

The stories of Afghans like Zubair, Salim, Asma and Batou are mirrored by thousands of others, their journeys back to Afghanistan fraught with uncertainty. For all of them, fleeing Afghanistan is less a choice than a necessity.

And for the millions who fled across Afghanistan’s borders over the past several decades in search of international protection, the road onward is paved with adversity. Even knowing that the threat of arrest, detention and deportation is only growing, they will continue to try.

We have met several others, who fled in search of international protection in neighbouring countries or further away, attempting to reach Turkey and Europe. Two of them, Farid* and Muhammad*, 22 and 28 years old, have been deported several times now in deplorable conditions, facing physical violence at the border between Iran and Turkey, but they say they will keep trying. Both have safety concerns as they were affiliated to the former regime, and saw their families suffer in retaliation. For them, failing is not an option. As Farid* told us:

“I have to try again. I don’t have a job, I don’t know if I am safe here, and I have no legal way of going anywhere else.”

Facts and information

All the people we’ve spoken to had to move through irregular channels and use the expensive services of smugglers, often on credit, to leave Afghanistan, as tight border control is observed between the two countries.

Upon arrival, people moving through irregular channels are at increased risk of deportation, in contravention with the principle of non-refoulement.

UNHCR’s updated Guidance Note on the International Protection Needs of People Fleeing Afghanistan continues to emphasize the criticality of upholding asylum, cautioning against the forcible return of Afghans, and advising that many Afghans – particularly women and girls - still have international protection needs. 


  • In 2022, an estimated 485,000 Afghans were deported from Iran.
  • In 2023, this number rose to at least 651,000 Afghans, an estimated 36% increase.
  • Since January 2024, IOM has already recorded close to 400,000 Afghans who crossed the border back to Afghanistan, in a context of shrinking protection space in its neighboring country.

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