ISLAM QALA, Afghanistan -- Iran is sending tens of thousands of Afghan migrants back to Afghanistan every week despite the threat of famine, aid agencies and witnesses say, with many deportees reporting mistreatment by Iranian authorities.
During decades of conflict, millions of Afghans have crossed into their western neighbour seeking to escape violence and a shattered economy.
The fall of the Afghan government in August has compounded the crisis -- disrupting international aid flows just as a severe drought has left more than half of the population facing acute food shortages.
But, despite the dire conditions awaiting them, Iran continues to force Afghans back over the border.
'They do not see us as humans'
Returning Afghans who spoke to AFP reported being held in crowded, filthy detention camps where some were beaten before being transported to the border crossing.
At the beginning of every afternoon, buses crowded with exhausted families arrive at Islam Qala, the Afghan side of the main border crossing with Iran.
AFP spoke to about 20 returning Afghans at the border and in the nearby city of Herat, who reported that those with no money to buy tickets home were held in detention camps.
All those who agreed to talk to a reporter told tales of mistreatment.
One deportee named Majeed said the authorities confiscated their mobile phones so they could not document the conditions.
"The camp is overcrowded; the people are very dirty. Those who have no money to buy food get only scraps of bread," he said.
With the first chills of winter taking hold, Afghans pushed back to their homeland face an uncertain future.
"We will wander here," Abdul Samad, 19, told AFP at the border, after being deported to Afghanistan.
"We don't know how to find money to go back to our homes."
Other refugees said they faced violence at the hands of Iranian authorities.
"They did not see us as humans," said Samad, who said he had been working in construction in Iran before he was deported.
Samad said Iranian authorities beat him in a migrant detention camp at the border because he had no money to pay for his deportation.
"They tied our hands and blindfolded us and insulted us," he said.
The testimonies of Samad and others could not be independently verified, and United Nations (UN) agencies did not comment on the specifics.
However, they are not the first to make such allegations.
Other Afghans expelled from Iran related their ordeal to Salaam Times in late September.
Iranian police treat Afghan refugees like animals -- they beat them up and torture them, Mirwais Yawari, a resident of Herat province, said at Islam Qala on September 19.
"The Iranian regime calls itself the Islamic Republic, but in reality, they are the Republic of Infidels," he said.
"Desperation among Afghans has been growing over the years as there are fewer job opportunities at home," Yawari said, adding that few can make it to Iran and earn a living because Iranian authorities seize Afghans' wages, torture them and deport them to Afghanistan.
Sayed Ahmad Ahmadi, who was deported on September 19, said Iranian police tortured and beat up him and his friends after arresting them.
"The Iranian police forced us to make animal noises," he recalled, adding that they severely beat the Afghan youth.
He said Iranian authorities did not let them sleep and forced them to stand on their feet for hours.
"The Iranian police took away all our money; we did not have enough money to even buy a bottle of water," Ahmadi said.
Mohammad Fahim Kamrani, a resident of Zindajan district who was deported from Iran, said he spent eight days in an Iranian prison without food.
"They detained us all -- around 10 people -- in a small bathroom," he said, adding that the bathroom was full of water and that they spent the night there until dawn the next day.
Iranian security forces also extorted money from Afghan refugees under various pretexts, beating anyone who protested, he said.
Many Afghan workers did not receive their wages from Iranian employers, and Iranian security forces confiscated the cash that some of them had managed to bring with them, he added.
'Broke and broken'
Over one million Afghans have been sent back from Iran this year -- including more than 28,000 in the last week of October, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Increasing returns to the country have compounded the challenges facing Afghanistan, IOM Director General Antonio Vitorino said in a statement.
"The majority were deported, returning to Afghanistan often broke and broken, in need of health support, food and rest," he said.
Between October 21 and 27, the latest period for which IOM has figures, 28,115 Afghan migrants returned from Iran, and so far this year 1,031,757 have returned.
IOM, which provides assistance to those in need at the border, told AFP last month that it had counted at least 3,200 unaccompanied children among those crossing from Iran this year.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has appealed to all nations to stop the forced returns of Afghans given the "highly volatile situation", and has been continuing to "advocate with the government of Iran".
Iran has claimed it welcomes Afghan refugees and provides them with needed assistance, and has sent aid shipments to Afghanistan in recent weeks.
Tehran's ambassador to the UN Majid Takht Ravanchi was quoted by Iranian media in late October as saying "we are hosting our Afghan brothers almost without receiving any new resources from the international community".
Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi last month, however, called on Afghans not to come to the country because "our capacities are limited", according to the state-run Tehran Times.
In 2020, Iran sheltered more than 3.4 million Afghans, including nearly two million undocumented migrants and 800,000 refugees, according to UNHCR.
Iran is facing its own economic woes as a result of US sanctions linked to its nuclear programme and devastating COVID-19 outbreaks.