AFGHANISTAN: Ousted By Iran, Afghan Refugees Languish At Home
By Anand Gopal
KABUL, Feb 26 (IPS) – Thousands of Afghan refugees, forcibly repatriated by Iran, have been living in makeshift camps across Afghanistan.
Many of the displaced, who fled the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil war, have returned to their home country to find a dearth of jobs, shelter and government programmes to help them reintegrate.
Hoden Makhtab, 40, a mother and deportee from Tehran, says: “We had lived in a house, but we left everything we owned when the (Iranian) government returned us here. There are eight people in my family. We came back here six months ago but the Afghan government has not given us any help. They haven’t even visited us.”
Makhtab speaks to IPS while standing next to her new home, a small cloth tent supported by wooden stays that shudder in the wind. She lives with close to 400 other families in between the construction projects of the Chamany Babrak section of Kabul, where a clutch of tents sit in an ankle-deep mud pit. There is no running water or electricity here, only dirt-dappled adults and half-naked children.
The sprawling camp is home to refugees from neighboring countries and other cities in Afghanistan. Some claim to have been deported from Pakistan, where they lived and worked during the war years. There are even some Pakistani refugees here, fleeing inclement weather and civil strife in their home country.
But the lion’s share is from Iran, where authorities have expelled thousands of Afghans in the recent months. Most of the residents here arrived from Iran and erected tents just six months ago, mirroring a process occurring in other major Afghan cities. Aid agencies say that there are hundreds of camps like Chamanay Babrak sprouting all over Afghanistan, housing thousands of deportees and pointing to the possibility of a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.
A shivering Sadaf Ismat, deportee from Iran six months ago, tells IPS, “My son-in-law was killed in an earthquake in Iran. We thought the government would help us, but instead they forced us to come here.”
“I am sick and cannot eat,” she says, as she shows visitors her tongue, discoloured from an untreated infection. “We have a big family but I don’t know what will happen to us. There is no work for anyone and I am so sick I cannot even beg.”
In a country struggling to overcome decades of war and insurgency, jobs are scarce. While some residents here are able to find wage work for a day, most are forced to beg. The returned refugees lack wood to protect against the bitter Kabul winter — causing widespread sickness — and rising food costs has meant that many go to sleep hungry.
Both the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Afghan government have programmes in place to help displaced persons who are voluntarily repatriating, but none for those expelled from other countries.
Like Makhtab, others here accuse the Iranian government of forcibly evicting them. “I went to Sheraz, Iran, 20 years ago,” Fazel Ghrias tells IPS, as he furnishes a Tehran-issued refugee ID card. “We lived in tents in Iran, but the government helped us. Then one day (six months ago) they said ‘your country has freedom now, you can go back’.” Ghrias claims that Iranian soldiers forced the refugees to board trucks at gunpoint, and then ransacked the tents, taking all the money they could find.
“The soldiers told us,” he continues, that “‘if you don’t go back to Afghanistan, we will kill you.’ Then they burned the houses of those who refused to leave.”
UNHCR estimates that close to one million Afghans have returned from Iran since 2001 and that in the last year Iran deported 360,000. According to the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Returnees Affairs (MRRA), in the first two months of this year already 17,000 Afghans have been expelled, despite an agreement between Kabul and Tehran to curtail deportations during the winter months.
UNHCR and the Iranian government both claim that those expelled were unregistered Afghans in the country illegally seeking work and should be considered economic migrants, not refugees. However, in the camps of Chamany Babrak most tenants are able to produce Tehran-issued refugee ID cards, indicating registered status.
In addition, some NGO reports suggest that Iranian soldiers often evict refugee settlements wholesale, without checking for registration status.
Camp resident Muzafar Khoram, 54, deported six months ago from Sheraz, says: “I was working near my house one day when the (Iranian) soldiers came, without warning. We had ID cards but the government didn’t pay any attention to this. We didn’t want to return, but they forced us, screaming ‘get out of Iran!’ They would not even let us collect our belongings. They forced us on to trucks, first the men and later the women and children.”
UNHCR spokesperson Ahmed Nader Farhad says that his agency only considers those who voluntarily repatriate as refugees. Those expelled, therefore, fall outside of the UNHCR mandate and go without any significant aid.
“They are not Iran’s and not our government’s responsibility,” Abdul Qader Zazai, chief advisor to Mohammed Etibari, the MRRA minister, tells IPS. Etibari said recently in a statement that the Afghan government does not have the ability or resources to absorb the thousands of deported and is asking the Iranian authorities to stem the tide of expulsions.
This appears to offer little consolation to the Chamany Babrak camp dwellers. “We are so poor and we need help — that is our main problem,” says Khoram. As he speaks a water tanker trundles through the thick mud — the residents pool together their daily earnings to buy water — as young children scatter from its path. “We need food and wood,” he continues. “Especially in winter, we don’t have what we need. We haven’t received oil, flour or bread. There are 10 people in my house. We are all sick. I don’t know what to do.”