Afghan refugees submit documents at a refugee center in Tehran, Iran, Oct. 24, 2016. Many young men who left Afghanistan for Iran and Pakistan are returning.
FILE - Afghan refugees submit documents at a refugee center in Tehran, Iran, Oct. 24, 2016. UNHCR estimates that 3 million Afghans are living in Iran.

With peace talks between the government and the Taliban teetering, and a dispute between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, causing a political impasse, Afghanistan is bracing for yet another dilemma — the return of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan amid fears of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, over 150,000 Afghan refugees have returned from Iran since late February. 

Sayed Abdul Basit Ansari, the ministry’s media adviser, told VOA that the influx is due to fears among the refugees that Iran has turned into the coronavirus epicenter in the region, with more than 27,000 confirmed cases and 2,000 deaths. 

“We have some Afghans who are deported from Iran, but most of them are returning voluntarily. They return because they fear contacting the virus in Iran,” said Ansari, adding that an average of 10,000 Afghans everyday are crossing the border from Iran. 

The U.N. Refugee Agency, (UNHCR), estimates that 3 million Afghans are living in Iran —about 900,000 are refugees,and the rest are documented or undocumented Afghans. 

FILE - Afghan refugee girls gather at the Bardsir settlement for Afghan refugees in Kerman province, Iran, Oct. 22, 2016.

Earlier this week, local Afghan outlets reported that Afghans in Iran were denied health care services, despite the increased number of cases. Iran’s health ministry, however, has rejected the claims, saying some 18,000 Afghans have been treated in Iran’s hospitals. 

Virus spread 

Afghanistan has reported 80 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, with the majority of the people infected in Iran, according to Afghan officials. The country’s health minister,Ferozuddin Feroz, has warned that the virus could kill some 110,000 Afghans if its spread is not controlled. 

Afghan authorities Wednesday put Herat, Farah and Nimruz provinces near Iran on lockdown. Theyhad shut the country’s borders with Iran in late February, but that measure lasted only two days because the “citizens of Afghanistan have the right to return to their country,” said AlemaAlema, Afghanistan’s deputy minister of refugees and repatriation affairs. 

With the large number of returnees and limited testing capacity, health officials admit that positive COVID-19 cases could be much higher than reported. The only hospital for coronavirus testing so far is in Kabul. Officials say international organizations such as UNHCR and the International Migration Organization (IMO) have offered to help, but an effective response to the pandemic needs much swifter action. 

Nader Farhad, spokesman forUNHCR in Afghanistan, told VOA that the organization was hiring 20 more staff members to help the Afghan government with awareness, registration and coordination tasks at the border crossings. The organization will ensure the border have proper “crowd management, cleanliness, maintenance and lighting” needed for better screening, Farhad said. 

Illegal crossings 

Farhad said that though refugees are registered at the border, it is difficult to track them later.   

 “Those who have returned do not necessarily go to their villages, or even their provinces that they reported. They may go to live in cities, since most of them used to live in cities in Pakistan and Iran,” he told VOA. 

 WahidullahMayar, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health, told VOA that even if the crossings were shut, returnees would have found ways to enter the country.  

 “Even if the government wanted to close the border points, people would use illegal crossings along the border,” he warned. 

FILE - Children play outside their families' shelters at Afghan refugee camp in Islamabad, Pakistan, Feb. 13, 2020.

Afghanistan shares a nearly 2,600-kilometer border with Pakistan and another 920- kilometer border with Iran. A relatively weaker central government has kept the border areas mostly porous and accessible for illegal crossings and militant activities from groups such as the Taliban and Islamic State. 

 Afghans in Pakistan 

In mid-2017, Pakistan launched a massive military-led construction program to fence off its border with Afghanistan. Pakistani officials say the fence, set to be completed this year, will improve border security by limiting militant infiltration. However, Afghan officials say the fence could separate thousands of cross-border families. 

 According toUNHCR, there are about 2.5 million Afghans living in Pakistan, of which 1.4 million are registered by the agency as refugees. The organization estimates that since 2002, over 4.4 million Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan under its Voluntary Repatriation Program.  

 ‘Voluntary repatriation’ 

Qaisar Afridi, spokesman for UNHCR in Pakistan, told VOA that the organization earlier this month resumed its voluntary repatriation program at its centers located in Azakhel village of Nowshera district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Baleli village of Quetta district in Balochistan, after a three-month winter break.  Each registered individual receives $200 upon their return to Afghanistan to ease their resettlement. 

 Afridi said a total of 28 people from nine families were returned to Afghanistan, but the process came to a halt due to the closure of border-crossing points.  

 “UNHCR and health partners carry out regular hygiene promotion activities within the refugee villages. The community workers are prioritizing and creating awareness among the refugees about the coronavirus,” he told VOA.

FILE - Boys from an Afghan refugee family ride on a motorcycle cart as they head to search for recyclables in a low-income neighborhood in Lahore, Pakistan, June 20, 2019.

Nisar Azizi, refugee attaché at the Afghanistan consul general in Quetta, told VOA that even after the coronavirus outbreak is controlled, most Afghan refugees wish to remain in Pakistan until a lasting peace is established in Afghanistan. 

 Azizi said he was in touch with Afghan refugees located in 12 refugee villages and camps in Quetta, and “they didn't show a willingness for the voluntary repatriation to their homeland because of the worsening security situation and unavailability of jobs” in Afghanistan. 

 He said many Afghans, particularly those who migrated to Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, have intermarried and established themselves in Pakistan over the years. 

 “Their youngsters are happy to stay in Pakistan,” he said, adding that “if the government of Pakistan doesn't push them by force, they will never move or repatriate to Afghanistan.”