DUSHANBE -- An ominous message was sent to Afghan refugees in Tajikistan this week, warning members of the some 10,000-strong community that they risk being forcibly sent back to face the persecution and violence they fled.
"They [the Tajik authorities] told us that they would take us to Dushanbe, but they took us directly to the border," an Afghan woman who claimed she had been expelled to Afghanistan said in a voice recording obtained by RFE/RL's Tajik Service this week. "Everyone, if someone from your family is working, don't let him go to work. Do not walk around Dushanbe," she added in a stark warning to fellow refugees in the Tajik capital.
RFE/RL was unable to independently verify the claims made in the anonymous recording. But since the warning emerged on a WhatsApp channel dedicated to Afghan nationals living in Tajikistan on August 22, well-placed sources and relatives of refugees have said that at least nine Afghans were forcibly sent back to Afghanistan in the past week.
It was unclear why the Afghan nationals were deported. But it is part of a trend that has been criticized by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
The deportations come despite longstanding calls by the UN body to halt the expulsions of Afghan nationals from Tajikistan and to offer them protection and give them access to a fair asylum process.
The woman who issued the warning on WhatsApp said she had been deported along with two other Afghan nationals, one of whom, she said, held official UN refugee documents. This claim was also made by other sources who spoke to RFE/RL's Tajik Service about the recent deportations.
"My husband's residency documents were correct. He had a UN refugee card, but he was expelled from Tajikistan," the wife of one of the deportees said on condition of anonymity. "My husband is now on the other side of the border, and I am in Tajikistan with my three children. We don't know where to go."
A source who helps provide legal services to Afghan refugees in Tajikistan said members of the country's security services forcibly took the refugees to the border.
"We still do not know why this happened," the source said on condition of anonymity out of concerns of retribution. "Some of the Afghan immigrants were called in to check their documents and were taken to the border by car and transferred to that side. Some were taken away from their homes."
In an August 25 statement, the UNHCR raised "grave concerns over the continued detention and deportations of Afghan refugees in Tajikistan, warning once again that forcing people fleeing persecution back to their country against their will is illegal and puts lives at risk."
The UN body said that five Afghan nationals, including a mother and her three children, were sent across the border in northeastern Tajikistan to Afghanistan on August 23.
"Tajikistan must stop detaining and deporting refugees, an action that clearly puts lives at risk," said Elizabeth Tan, UNHCR's director of international protection. "Forced return of refugees is against the law and runs contrary to the principle of non-refoulement, a cornerstone of international refugee law."
The statement did not mention the other four refugees that are believed to have been deported since August 19 but said that "since 2021, UNHCR has recorded multiple incidents of refugee detentions, forced returns, and non-admission to territory for individuals in need of international protection" in Tajikistan.
Dushanbe-based UNHCR associate communications officer Nodira Akbaralieva, responding to follow-up questions from RFE/RL, said on August 26 that the UN body was aware of at least 74 Afghan nationals who had been deported from Tajikistan in the past year. Akbaralieva said that the deportations were "sporadic" until recent weeks, when they intensified.
Akbaralieva also said that in almost all cases of deportation, "none were notified in advance about the decision" and thus "could not appeal and undergo the required legal process."
Regarding claims to RFE/RL that some of the recent deportations involved people who held official UN refugee identifications, Akbaralieva said that the UNHCR is aware of only one asylum seeker who was registered with the body, and other deportees were "state-recognized refugees and asylum seekers."
"All of them, regardless of the documents they possess, were entitled to international protection, including safeguards from forced returns and refoulement to the country where their lives could be endangered," Akbaralieva said in written comments.
Tajikistan, which shares a 1,360-kilometer border with Afghanistan, has long been a temporary haven for Afghans fleeing persecution, economic hardship, and unrest in their home country. The numbers of Afghan refugees in Tajikistan have fluctuated greatly over the past two decades, from a peak of more than 15,300 in 2001, when U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime, to more than 8,000 at the beginning of this year.
In the four months after the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, approximately 1,300 Afghans sought refugee status in Tajikistan. Thousands of Afghans have been transferred from Tajikistan to third countries.
Less than a week after the Taliban took over Kabul, the UNHCR issued a "global non-return advisory" to countries hosting Afghan refugees. The advisory calls for a ban on the forced returns of Afghan nationals, saying that "forced returns will place asylum-seekers at risk of persecution upon return and accordingly, constitute a serious breach of international law."
A devastating humanitarian and economic crisis as well as the Taliban's brutal rule has forced more than 1 million Afghans to flee their homeland in the past year.
In the UNHCR's August 25 statement, Tan added: "We have continuously urged the authorities in Tajikistan to allow access to territory for those fleeing conflict and persecution in Afghanistan and halt any further deportations."
Tajikistan's State Committee for National Security declined to respond to questions by RFE/RL's Tajik Service about the claims that at least nine Afghan nationals have been deported in the past week.
The Interior Ministry's press service told RFE/RL that 32 Afghan nationals had been fined for unidentified violations of their stay in Tajikistan, but that "they were not expelled."