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Helping the most vulnerable return home to Afghanistan

02 Apr 2020

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Islam Qala border crossing, 22–23 March 2020. 
Credit: IOM 

“I went to Iran to find work, but I had to come back because work was very limited and because of the spread of COVID-19,” said Juma Gul.* Juma Gul is one of more than 100,000 undocumented Afghan migrants who returned from Iran to Afghanistan in March through the Islam Qala border in Hirat Province.

Juma Gul is from Badakshan Province in the far north-east of Afghanistan. Like the vast majority of returnees, he went to Iran to find work, primarily in construction or seasonal agriculture. However, demand for Afghan labour dwindled due to the economic crisis in Iran and, more recently, the prevalence of COVID-19 in Iran, where more than 38,000 cases have been confirmed thus far.

“We feared being detained and deported in Iran and now we fear being detained in Afghanistan. I did not even inform my family that I am back; I only told my brother,” said Juma Gul. More than 80 per cent of Afghan migrants in Iran do not have work permits and face increasing levels of stigma.

To help stem the COVID-19 outbreak in Afghanistan, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) health teams, in close partnership with the Ministry of Public Health, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) at the border, are providing surveillance screening and medical care, and raising awareness around COVID-19. In addition, Juma Gul and other vulnerable people returning from Iran are being supported at a reception centre at the Islam Qala border, where they are served a meal and refreshments. 


Vulnerable people returning from Iran are being supported at a reception centre at the Islam Qala border. Credit: OCHA Afghanistan/Linda Tom

“Returnees come back from Iran in a state of total exhaustion. Together with partners, we want to make sure that undocumented returnees are well briefed on their right to assistance and know how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19,” said Nick Bishop, an Emergency Response Officer with IOM Afghanistan. 

Juma Gul will be transported by IOM from the reception centre to temporary accommodations in Hirat City. Returnees and their families are given cash assistance so that they can return to their areas of origin. Non-governmental organizations are also providing hygiene kits, and family tracing and reunification for unaccompanied migrant children. 

In 2019, more than half a million people returned to Afghanistan, the vast majority of whom returned from Iran.

In Afghanistan, the Ministry of Public Health reports show that 239 people across 19 provinces are now confirmed to have the virus as of 1 April. Hirat is still the most affected part of the country, with 184 of the confirmed cases. Five people have now died from the virus. Contact tracing for the people confirmed with COVID-19 is ongoing.


A sign at the Islam Qala border that is helping to raise awareness around COVID-19. Credit: OCHA Afghanistan/Linda Tom 

* Not his real name.