Iran resorts to collective punishment of Afghans over Helmand river water dispute

By Emran

Afghan refugees recently deported by the Iranian regime claim the Iranian police tortured them and seized their money and belongings as a form of collective punishment over the Helmand river water dispute. [Emran/Salaam Times]

HERAT -- Afghan refugees recently deported by the Iranian regime claim the Iranian police tortured them and seized their money and belongings as a form of collective punishment over the Helmand river water dispute.

The latest dispute over water between Iran and Afghanistan began when Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi on May 18 accused Afghan authorities of not meeting their obligations to provide Iran with its "water rights" from the Helmand.

Using threatening language, he accused Afghanistan of failing to honour its commitments under a 1973 treaty or to offer the necessary co-operation in supplying Iran's legal water rights.

Former Baghlan province resident Shah Mansoor Rajabi told Salaam Times he had been doing construction work in Mazandaran province, Iran, when he was arrested at his workplace, along with two of his coworkers.

Afghan refugees deported from Iran are seen July 25 inside a UN refugee camp in Herat city. [Emran/Salaam Times]

Afghan refugees deported from Iran are seen July 25 inside a UN refugee camp in Herat city. [Emran/Salaam Times]

"Iranian police beat me and took my money and cell phone," the 28-year-old construction worker said. "They transferred us to a detention centre, where they didn't give us proper food or water for three days and nights."

"The Iranian police would tell us we should be tortured and that we don't have the right to live in Iran because Afghanistan has blocked Helmand river water," Rajabi said.

"They beat three young Afghan men in front of us so badly that they broke their arms and legs," he added. "They yelled that they would deport all Afghans."

"The Iranian government has been pressuring Afghans across the country ever since the case of the Helmand river's water escalated, making life for Afghan refugees in Iran very difficult," he said.

Rajabi was deported from Iran on July 25 and has found temporary shelter in the United Nations (UN) refugee camp in Herat city.

"Spending time in that country is very painful," he said of his sojourn in Iran.

The Iranian government is using the Helmand river water dispute as a pretext for deportations, said former Daikundi province resident Allahyar Mohammadi, who was deported from Iran and is living in a UN refugee camp.

"I was working with four other Afghans in a building in Tehran when the police came and detained all of us, saying that 'You have cut off water on us; we will cut off your food,'" the 43-year-old said.

"Bakeries would not give us bread, and they would not even allow us into stores if they found out we were Afghan," he said. "Police would beat, insult and humiliate Afghans wherever they would find them."

Uptick in deportations

Each day, between 2,000 and 3,000 Afghans are deported from Iran by way of the Islam Qala border crossing, said Abdullah Qayoumi, who is in charge of refugee affairs at the crossing into Herat province.

This is in contrast to the previous number of deportees, he said, which typically ranged between 1,500 and 2,000 a day.

"Most deported refugees complain about the Iranian government, mainly about the Iranian police harassing them and taking their money," Qayoumi said.

Some Afghan refugees have passports, but the Iranian police confiscate their passports and deport them, he added.

Former Badakhshan province resident Mohebullah Zahid, 26, was recently deported from Iran and is living in the UN refugee camp in Herat city.

Zahid said he worked on a construction project in hot weather for 15 days in Fars province, Iran. When he asked his employer for his salary, the employer called the police on him, and he was deported from Iran without getting paid.

He told Salaam Times that Iranian authorities have been taking every opportunity to act against Afghan refugees in Iran -- often using the water issue as a pretext.

"Every time the Iranian police would beat me, they would ask why we have cut off water from the Helmand river," Zahid said.

"They would mistreat the detained refugees, even children and women, on the way to the detention centre and in the centre."

"The Iranian police and drivers would forcibly take money from us and severely beat those who would not pay," he added.

"Iranian employers do not pay the salaries of Afghan workers since issues over the Helmand river water have escalated between Afghanistan and Iran," Zahid said.

"When we went to the police, they backed the Iranian employers and immediately detained and deported us," he said.

Drought in Afghanistan

The Iranian regime has demanded its water rights at a time when Afghanistan is suffering from severe drought and when farmers cannot cultivate their land.

Farmer Niaz Mohammad, 48, of Chahar Borjak district, Nimroz province, said he could not farm this year amid the drought.

"There is no water in the Helmand river in Nimroz," he said. "The Kamal Khan dam is empty from the severe drought. There is no water in the river to release to Iran."

"We are thirsty, and there is no water to cultivate our land," he added. "How can we give water to Iran?"

For decades, Iran has received more than its share of water from the Helmand river, and it should pay money to Afghanistan, Mohammad said.

Herat city environmentalist Khalil Ahmad Faqiri said Afghanistan has been severely affected by climate change and faces acute water shortages.

"The 1973 Helmand River Water Treaty between Afghanistan and Iran was based on the situation of the time," he said, noting that the treaty stipulates that in case of water shortages, Afghanistan is not obligated to give water to Iran.

"Because of the drought and water shortages, the Iranian government has no right to pressure Afghanistan for its water rights," he told Salaam Times.

"As a party to the Helmand River Water Treaty, the Iranian government has never fulfilled its commitments under the treaty," Faqiri said.

"For years, it received more water than agreed to in the treaty, but it has given nothing in return to Afghanistan," he added.

"The Iranian government also has dug deep wells near the border with Afghanistan, illegally draining water from the river."

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