Afghans head for home in record numbers as Iran's currency sinks

A record 442,344 Afghans have voluntarily returned or been deported from Iran this year as looming US sanctions fueled a run on the rial and spurred inflation.

Migrant workers squeezed into battered taxis pull into the Four Seasons of Freedom hotel in western Afghanistan, part of a wave of Afghans forced to leave Iran after a currency implosion wiped out their earnings.

A record 442,344 Afghans have voluntarily returned or been deported from Iran this year as looming US sanctions — which began to be reimposed this week — fueled a run on the rial and spurred inflation.

Iran’s currency has lost around half of its value against the dollar since US President Donald Trump abandoned a landmark 2015 nuclear deal in May, triggering a reimposition of tough penalties on the Islamic republic.

That has devastated not only the savings of Iranian households, but also the remittances of undocumented Afghans.

Desperate and jobless Afghans have crossed the porous border with Iran for years in search of work to support their families back home.

Many of those families are farmers now suffering through Afghanistan’s worst drought in living memory, compounding the misery caused by 17 years of conflict and underscoring their reliance on the remittances.

Abdul Mussawir, who went to Iran three years ago, used to earn the equivalent of 18,000 afghanis per month (US$260) working in an auto factory in the city of Isfahan.

Mussawir, 22, sent money to his parents and nine younger siblings in Parwan province, supplementing the meagre income of his taxi driver father.

But as the run on the rial gathered pace, his monthly earnings shrivelled to the equivalent of 6,000 afghanis.

“I was sending almost all the money I was earning to support my family ... (but) it wasn’t enough,” said Mussawir.

After taking a taxi from the border to the Four Seasons of Freedom hotel in Herat city, a distance of roughly 140 kilometers, Mussawir hoped to find better paid work in his conflict-torn country.

“It doesn’t make sense to come back here but I have to,” he said, a look of resignation etched on his face.

The Afghans who returned from Iran in the first seven months of 2018 were more than double the number for the same period of 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The figure included 191,056 “spontaneous,” or voluntary, returns. The remaining 251,288 were deported as Iran toughens its border controls.

Among those kicked out was 17-year-old Aleem Mohmini, who spent three months working on a tomato farm near the southern city of Shiraz before Iranian police caught him.

As he sat with other minors in the IOM’s transit center for returnees in Herat, Mohmini pondered his future in a country where unemployment is rampant.

“I don’t know what I should do. There’s no one in my family to earn money,” said Mohmini, who was the breadwinner for his household in the northern province of Baghlan.

The IOM expects the flood of returnees to Afghanistan to continue as US sanctions targeting Iran’s access to US banknotes, key industries and oil sales exacerbate the country’s economic woes.

Special Reports