A safe space for children and families returning from Iran
Seven-year-old Setayesh is playing with her younger brother Maisam, age 6, in the children’s playground under the watchful gaze of their parents at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Transit Centre in Hirat, western Afghanistan. Just a day before, they returned to Afghanistan from Iran through the Islam Qala border.
“We went to Iran three years ago, but the situation has changed and now there is no work,” said their father, Jawed, while packing a few belongings from the room where they had spent the night. “If the conditions there were good, why would we come back?”
Like many others, Jawed went to Iran in the hopes of a better life for the family of four. However, with the spread of COVID-19 in Iran, employment opportunities for day labourers such as Jawed have all but dried up.
“After all our expenses, we were only able to afford the basics, but with no work, we could not stay. Setayesh had only been going to school for one year,” he added. In the first four months of this year, 272,000 people without undocumented Afghan migrants returned to Afghanistan from Iran, with as many as 15,000 returning per day in March. The number has since declined to between 500 and 600 people per day due to Ramadan religious holidays and a temporary ban on movements in Iran that has since been lifted in late April as Iran is gradually reopening its economy.
The young family was among the 95 people staying at the IOM Transit Centre that day. The majority were young men, but 18 women and 22 children were also staying on as guests. When asked about COVID-19, Jawed said, “We didn’t return because of that alone; we still have to be concerned because we have the virus here in Afghanistan as well.”
The staff at the Transit Centre, which has 64 rooms, were doing their utmost to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “We sanitize high-traffic and common spaces especially doors and handles several times a day. Once a room is vacated, we disinfect the room. We don’t allow more than four people per room, but of course, we need to keep families together,” said Aziz Rahimi, a Senior Programme Assistant working on cross-border returns and reintegration with IOM.
Handwashing stations with soap are readily available around the centre, and at least 25 suspected cases of COVID-19 have been referred to the Ministry of Public Health’s designated isolation facility in Hirat city for testing. “With some services from partners reduced or cut due to COVID-19, it is important that we continue to provide services to all who need them,” he added.
As of 11 May, nearly 4,700 people were confirmed to have COVID-19 in Afghanistan, including about 300 children. However, only 17,000 people have been tested and health experts fear the true number of people with the virus could, in fact, be much higher, threatening to worsen the situation for returnee families such as Jawed’s both because of stigmatization, which associates disease transmission with returnees, and because of other related movement restrictions and stay-at-home orders, which make finding work challenging.
With help from IOM, Jawed is hopeful that his family can rebuild their lives in Kabul with some help from their extended family who have a small plot of farmland. In addition to temporary shelter, the IOM Transit Centre also provides returnees with hot meals, dry food rations, medical, counselling and other protection referral services and cash assistance for transportation, so that they can return home. UNICEF also supports transit centres for unaccompanied and separated children complementing the work of IOM.
“We have no plans to say here; we will leave this afternoon,” said Jawed while holding on tight to his two children. “Before going to Iran, I worked in Kabul for eight years. If they accept me, I would like to go back to that job so I can support my family,” he said.