The fire at the Islam Qala customs depot caused explosion which killed approximately 40 people. Photo: IOM
Herat – A catastrophic fire on the border between Afghanistan and Iran, which killed at least 40 people, injured 17 others and caused USD hundreds of millions worth of destruction on Saturday, also damaged the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Islam Qala Reception Centre. The facility provided humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of returning Afghans in 2020.
The fire at the Islam Qala border point, located 120 kilometres to the west of Herat city, was sparked when small arms fire ignited hundreds of oil tankers parked at the border crossing’s customs depot, causing multiple explosions.
An initial assessment of the reception facility for returnees revealed extensive damage to the roof and ceiling. A more detailed structural assessment is to be carried out in coming days. Neither IOM staff nor returning migrants were injured in the blaze.
“Fortunately, all returnees who registered that day at our reception centre already had moved onward to their next destination before the fire began,” explained Nick Bishop, programme manager of IOM’s cross-border return response.
Rates of return have significantly increased over the past year as COVID-19 caused many Afghans working in neighbouring Iran to lose jobs and livelihoods. 2020 was the largest return year on record, with nearly 860,000 undocumented Afghan migrants coming back from Iran. Approximately 15,000 people cross the Islam Qala border point daily, while nearly 1,500 per day are in need of humanitarian assistance.
“We hope to rapidly repair all damage to the reception facility as soon as possible and continue vital humanitarian services to Afghans returning through this major transit route, but we will require increased support to do so,” Bishop added.
Presently, IOM in close partnership with the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR) assists an estimated 500 returnees with severe needs each week with services such as COVID-19 screening, provision of emergency items, mental health and psychosocial counselling and onward transportation support. Some also receive hot meals. In 2021, IOM is seeking USD 29.7 million to support the anticipated return of 654,000 Afghan undocumented migrants.
The Organization is taking extraordinary action to ensure that humanitarian assistance can continue. MoRR staff will refer people in need here to IOM’s Transit Centre in Herat until IOM staff return, pending a full assessment of the damage sustained and a review of the security situation. Until then, IOM staff will continue their work from IOM’s largest transit facility in Herat.
IOM anticipates rates of return through Islam Qala will drop significantly in the coming days as migrants on their return journeys from Iran are now being diverted to the major border crossing at Milak, in Nimroz province, located more than 1,000 kilometres to the southwest. On 14 February, over 2,000 undocumented migrants crossed at the Milak crossing, a trend that may escalate over the coming days until the Islam Qala border resumes full functionality.