Afghanistan braces for coronavirus surge as migrants pour back from Iran


More than 130,000 Afghans have fled the coronavirus outbreak convulsing Iran to return home to Afghanistan amid fears they are bringing new infections with them to the conflict-ridden and impoverished country.

The huge spike in Afghans crossing the porous border from Iran, in one of the biggest cross-border movements of the pandemic, has led to mounting fears in the humanitarian community over the potential impact of new infections carried from Iran, one of the countries worst affected by the virus.

With the Afghan ministry of health warning that some 16 million people could become infected and tens of thousands could die, experts say the wave of returning labourers and refugees, who are then dispersing throughout the country, is threatening an already complex health and security situation.

According to a joint situation report from the World Health Organization and the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs at the weekend, while only 174 Afghans are confirmed to have the virus, the real number may be much higher because of limited ability to test and trace contacts.

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For its part, the Norwegian Refugee Council warned at the end of March that “given the prevalence of Covid-19 in Iran, [the] humanitarian community’s main focus now is on provinces and districts that are considered to be at highest risk due to the volume of cross-border movement.

“This includes 25 districts that are the primary destinations for returnees from Iran, with Herat, Nimroz, Kabul, Balkh, Faryab being at the highest risk due to their greater connectivity to outbreak provinces in Iran.”

Underlining the concerns is the fact that the majority of confirmed cases are located in the western Herat province bordering Iran, a transit point for many of those crossing.

People gather to collect masks, gloves and disinfectants distributed to the public, in Herat, Afghanistan, 15 March 2020.

At a camp on the outskirts of Herat, the Guardian met recent returnees from Iran who explained that they had fled Iran both because of fear of the virus and because the lockdown there had put them out of work

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Among them was Mirwais, 18, from Baghlan province, who had been working as a labourer for two years.

“The situation was getting worse everyday. Because of the quarantine I couldn’t work any more. Secondly, I was afraid of coronavirus,” he said.

“The border was so busy. Everyone was scared of the virus. I put up with so many humiliations in Iran to send money home. But I couldn’t resist coronavirus because I’m the only one who works in my family and if I die, they would die too, of hunger.

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“Now I don’t know what to do. I don’t know whether to go home penniless or stay here. I had just enough money to get to the border.”

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