Outcry in Afghanistan after Iran border guards accused of forcing drowned migrants into river

Ben Farmer
·4 min read
At least 18 young Afghans were drowned as they tried to enter Iran
At least 18 young Afghans were drowned as they tried to enter Iran

The drowning of at least 18 young Afghans allegedly forced at gunpoint into a river by Iranian border guards has caused a diplomatic strain between Kabul and Tehran and international calls for an investigation.

Hanif Atmar, Afghan foreign minister, has pledged to use “all diplomatic affords to bring justice and investigate this unforgivable crime” and said he had held “tense” meetings with Iranian officials. Accounts of the incident and video of the bodies laid out in desert have provoked outcry across Afghanistan.

The US State department said: “Iran's cruel treatment and abuse of Afghan migrants alleged in these reports is horrifying. We support calls for a thorough investigation. Those found guilty of such abuse must be held accountable.”

Tehran has denied its border guards had any involvement in the deaths, but has agreed to cooperate in any investigation.

Survivors told the Telegraph that a party of more than 50 young men were caught north of the Western city of Herat as they tried to smuggle themselves into Iran earlier this month. Iranian guards beat them, then forced them into the Harirod river.

Afghan protesters outside the Iranian embassy in Kabul on May 7 - JAWAD JALALI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Afghan protesters outside the Iranian embassy in Kabul on May 7 - JAWAD JALALI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

At least 18, local officials have said, while others are missing.

Hundreds of thousands of desperate Afghans journey to Iran each year in search of temporary work in their more prosperous neighbour.

Many end up working on building sites, or in industry, where conditions are hard, but better than back home.

The Covid-19 pandemic has not halted movement back and forth across the 570-mile border, which is rife with drug traffickers and people smugglers.

The migrants were caught as soon as they had crossed into Iran from the north of Herat province, survivors said.

Related: Boat Carrying Afghan Migrants Capsizes off Turkish Coast

After being badly beaten, and forced to clean up an Iranian camp, they were put on a bus and driven to a river bank.

A survivor called Naeem, 19, from Herat's Robat Sangi district, told the Telegraph he had decided to make the illegal crossing to look for work to support his family.

Smugglers had give the party barrels to cross the river, but they were picked up quickly on the Iranian side. Some of the migrants were only young teens.

“They did not drown us close to a village, they were telling each other that villagers would take us from water. Among us, we had and 11-year-old boy, some 14, some 15 and up to 45. Most of them died or are missing.

“We begged them that we cannot swim, we will die, but they pushed us into the water. Some were resisting more and the police fired some shots and I don’t know whether it was into air or they shot someone. I was in the water and trying to safe my own life. When I was there, we got nine bodies from the water.”

Iran has rejected any involvement in the deaths.

Abbas Mousavi, spokesman for Iranian foreign ministry, said the incident occurred on Afghan soil. “But due to the importance of the issue and to learn about this, we have begun cooperation with the Afghans to investigate the case.”

France last week added to criticism of Iran, saying it was “extremely concerned by reports on brutalities and crimes against migrants at the Afghan-Iranian border”.

David Martinon, French ambassador to Kabul, said: “No human being can be treated this way. Thorough investigations must be conducted. We call Iranian authorities to ensure human rights and dignity are fully protected.”

Attacks on migrants by border police are commonplace, according to workers who have made the journey.

Baidullah, a daily labourer who was deported from Iran back to Herat told the Telegraph he was attacked as he crossed three years ago.

“When I was crossing, Iranian border police started shooting at our Toyota and I was shot in my arm. We managed to escape and after many difficulties, I managed to get to one of my relatives’ homes in Saveh city, in Iran,” he said.