Afghanistan/Iran: Kabul Pleads With Tehran To Delay Refugee Expulsions
By Farangis Najibullah
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
She’s lived in Iran her entire life, but Siddiqa Rezai can’t call it home.
Rezai, 20, is the daughter of Afghan refugees who fled war in their homeland 25 years ago. Until now, her family of eight has lived in the town of Boen-Zahra in Qazvin Province, west of Tehran. Rezai and her five siblings were all born there. It’s the only home they’ve ever known.
Rezai’s father works as a brickmaker. Most of his income goes to pay rent. Speaking Farsi with a strong Iranian accent, Rezai tells RFE/RL she would like to study or work to contribute to her family’s income but can’t “because all doors are closed to Afghan refugees.”
She says she wanted to attend university but “wasn’t allowed.”
“I was told that I have had only the right to go to school, but I have no right to be admitted to university,” she says. “I’m looking for a job in Boen-Zahra, but businesses say, ‘We don’t employ Afghans.’ I can’t find a job.”
Luckier Than Most
Nevertheless, Rezai’s parents consider themselves “lucky.” They have legal refugee status, a roof over their heads, and food on the table.
Others are less fortunate. An estimated 1.5 million Afghans living in Iran without legal registration face a threat of immediate deportation or arrest. Last week, Interior Ministry officials said they had warned Afghan illegal immigrants to leave Iran or face up to five years in prison.
Iran began forcibly repatriating Afghan refugees in April, when the Interior Ministry said it would send 1 million immigrants back to Afghanistan by March 2008. Despite protests from Kabul, tens of thousands Afghans have so far been forced out.
According to Afghan refugees in Iran, the police have rounded up Afghan men, put them in buses, and dropped them off along the Iranian-Afghan border — often without even informing their families. Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency quotes officials from the Foreigners’ Police as saying that as many as 20,000 Afghans were expelled in the first three days of the latest refugee expulsion drive alone.
According to official figures, there are some 900,000 legally registered Afghan refugees living in Iran. Most refugees, regardless of their legal status, work in construction or other low-paying manual jobs.
Tehran has steadily increased pressure on refugees over the past year in a bid to drive them out. Some Afghan immigrants complain that without official permission, they can no longer obtain medical insurance, open bank accounts, or buy homes.
More importantly, refugees’ children are denied access to public schools unless they pay tuition fees that many of them cannot afford.
Voices Of Concern
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and rights activist, is involved in defending the refugee children’s right to education.
“Children born to mixed families — Iranian and Afghan parents — don’t have passports, because the Iranian government has not given them passports, so they are deprived of their right to education,” Ebadi tells RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan. “Afghans have set up several schools in Tehran for these children, but Iran’s Ministry of Education does not officially recognize these schools.”
Tehran has defended its decision on expulsion, saying the plan targets only illegal immigrants. The Interior Ministry says those who have been expelled have the right to return if they obtain the proper documents from Iranian consulates in Afghanistan.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Kabul confirms that Iran so far has mostly expelled unregistered immigrants. Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesman in Kabul, tells RFE/RL that Iran has expelled some 360,000 Afghan immigrants since April — and that the majority of them had been living in Iran illegally.
Authorities in Kabul are concerned.
A spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, Sultan Ahmad Beheen, told reporters in Kabul this week that the ministry had not been officially informed about Tehran’s latest decision. He said that following the recent media reports, the ministry contacted the Iranian Embassy in Kabul to discuss the fate of Afghan refugees.
“These reports are inconsistent with previous discussions and agreements we had [with Iran over the refugee issue], and we hope that at least during the cold winter months, the Afghans will not be forced to leave Iran,” Beheen said.
Beheen added that a high-level Afghan delegation would go to Tehran soon to ask the Iranian authorities to delay the deportation of Afghans for a few months to allow Kabul to prepare for their return.
Amid a violent insurgency in its south, Afghanistan is finding it hard to cope with thousands of internally displaced people as well as millions of former refugees repatriated from Pakistan and Iran.
Most of them have congregated in the already overburdened capital, Kabul, and other cities, adding to unemployment and housing problems. Thousands live in tents and makeshift homes on city outskirts, or rent places in the poorest areas.
Since 2002, some 4 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan under a coordinated voluntary repatriation of refugees from Iran and Pakistan. They receive limited assistance from the UNHCR to resettle in their homeland.
(RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Zarif Nazar contributed to this report.)