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Afghanistan: Forcible expulsions from Iran put pressure on Kabul

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Legal refugees as well as illegal aliens are swept up and dumped on the Afghan border.

By Hafizullah Gardesh in Kabul and Sudabah Afzali and Sadeq Behnam in Herat (ARR No. 252, 17-May-07)

As Iran continues forcibly expelling large numbers of Afghan nationals, many of those affected by the campaign claim they were assaulted or otherwise mistreated by Iranian security forces.

The repatriatiation drive, which began on April 21, is officially targeting only those who are in Iran illegally, but anecdotal evidence suggests many people whose residence papers or visas are perfectly in order have been detained and summarily expelled by Iranian police.

The dumping of large numbers of people in under-resourced areas of western Afghanistan which are ill-equipped to cope with such a massive influx has caused a political scandal in Kabul. Two ministers have been sacked by parliament after being accused of failing to do enough to make Tehran change its mind.

Noor Ahmad, 34, is a recent deportee now in hospital in Herat. He is bruised and his clothes are still covered in blood.

He said he was working on a building site in Iran when the security forces arrived. He alleges that they threw him and three other Afghans from the second floor of the unfinished building. One man died, and the others were injured.

Noor Ahmad was then deported, leaving his family behind in Iran. Now in Afghanistan, he has no idea what has happened to his family - and is bitter about the treatment meted out to him.

"Iranians... do not care about humanitarian or ethical issues. Be careful - do not be deceived by these people, however much they sweet-talk," he said. "I will remain an enemy of Iran forever."

According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, there are 920,000 registered Afghan refugees in Iran and perhaps a million more who are there illegally.

UNHCR can only intervene formally on behalf of legal refugees, and has a "trilateral agreement" in place with Tehran and Kabul to ensure an orderly return. Many of the refugees from both Pakistan and Iran who have come back since the Taleban were overthrown in 2001 have found life extremely difficult, with many still living in tents without basic services.

After announcing a plan to remove all the estimated one million illegals by the end of March 2008, the Iranian authorities have made a rapid start in recent weeks. The UNHCR says more than 52,000 were forced out between April 21 and May 8. IWPR was given a figure of 54,600 in Herat and Nimroz provinces by local Afghan officials.

By May 13, the Iranian authorities were saying they had expelled 85,000 Afghans as illegal aliens in the past three weeks.

Shamsuddin Hamed, head of the government department for refugees and returned persons in Herat province, told IWPR that forced deportations of refugees from Iran represents a contravention of the trilateral agreement.

"The security forces in Iran are treating Afghan refugees in a manner that is neither Islamic nor humanitarian. We have recorded cases of beating, torture, and even killings," he said.

The Iranian ambassador in Kabul, Mohammad Reza Bahrami, denied allegations that Iranian law-enforcement officers had assaulted Afghans prior to deporting them.

"The security forces of Iran respect humanity, and the story that an Afghan refugee was killed by Iranian security forces is mere rumour," he told IWPR.

Bahrami insisted all those deported refugees were in Iran without permission, and that they had no documents to prove legal status.

But Hamed insisted this was wrong, "The Iranian authorities have arrested Afghans who had tourist documentation, and torn up their passports. They have even deported Afghans who held Iranian ID cards. There are more than 2,000 such cases."

Nadir Farhod of UNHCR in Kabul confirmed that some of the people deported had legal status as refugees in Iran and the right supporting documents. He said UNHCR had reported this to the Iranian authorities and asked them to discuss the matter with Kabul.

Mohammad Shah holds the remnants of his Iranian ID card in his hand as he talks about how he was thrown out of the country.

"When I was arrested by the Iranians.... I showed them that I have this card but I was insulted and beaten because I was an Afghan," he said. "They tore up my card and handed the pieces back to me.

Before deporting groups of refugees, Shah said they were held at a camp used at a collection point for several days and given just one loaf of bread a day. In some cases, women and children were deported immediately, and in others they were held at the collecting points - a tactic that refugees like Shah suspect was designed to pressure the men of the family to make themselves know, and then deport them all.

Nooria, 25 years old, was visiting Iran on a tourist visa when she was picked up by police outside her hotel, who used insulting language, put her in a car and dumped her on the Afghan border. She showed IWPR her Afghan passport and Iranian visa to prove her papers were in order.

"They arrested me and didn't even give me a change to tell my husband, who was still inside the hotel," she said. "Now I don't know anyone in Herat and I have no idea how to call my husband or let him know I am here."

Furious at the apparent lack of response from the government, the Afghan parliament summoned the ministers for foreign and refugee affairs this week and hauled them over the coals.

Earlier, at a May 8 press conference, Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta said he had spoken to the Iranian authorities about the deportations and asked them to review the policy in view of the damaging effect it would have both on the security situation and the social fabric of in Afghanistan.

"Deportation en masse, even of illegal refugees, goes against internationally accepted principles and standards," he said. "This action by Iran could strain our friendly relationship."

At the May 10 session, members of parliament voted to dismiss the minister for refugee affairs, Ustad Akbar Akbar. Then on May 12, Foreign Minister Spanta was also given a vote of no confidence by the legislators.

President Hamed Karzai issued a statement the same day saying he would respect the decision to remove Akbar, but that he was referring the case of Spanta to the Supreme Court for a ruling on whether the dismissal over an issue that had "no direct linkage" with the minister's job was justified, and whether parliament had the right to dismiss someone if it took two rounds of voting to achieve a majority in favour. Until the court issued a decision on the matter, the statement said, the foreign minister would remain in his post.

Afghan analysts are puzzled at the timing of the expulsions. Afghan refugees have lived in Iran for many years, and the UNHCR's trilateral agreement provides a procedure for an organised process of return.

Many believe that the policy is driven by greater geopolitical considerations. Tehran is well aware that the arrival of a wave of refugees at a time of instability in large parts of Afghanistan, and when the country is barely able to cope with refugees who have already returned, must have a destabilising effect.

The real objective, say these analysts, is to put pressure on the United States by making life even harder for its client, the Karzai administration.

"By forcibly evicting the Afghan refugees, Iran is seeking to decrease the pressures caused by the sanctions imposed on it," said Muhammad Ibrahim, a political analyst based in Herat. "It wants to shift those pressures to the US itself, given that country's active presence in Afghanistan.

"But it is the Afghan people who will suffer."

Ibrahim warned that given the poor housing and employment provision for refugees in Afghanistan, the latest incomers could be driven to join the insurgency or take part in the opium trade.

Ambassador Bahrami rejected the allegations out of hand, saying Tehran would not use its bilateral ties with Kabul as an instrument to gain leverage in its dispute with the US.

"The relationship between Iran and Afghanistan are independent [of other matters]; this issue has nothing to do with Iranian-US affairs, or with pressuring the Afghan authorities," he said.

Inside Iran, there have also been expressions of concern about the mass deportations. A group of academics, activists, writers and journalists has written an open letter to their government asking it to halt the expulsions and other punitive measures.

According to a report published in the Iran Today newspaper on May 9, the signatories argued that the policy was unjustified given the lack of security and poor living standards that would face the Afghans on their return home.

"These inhumane, unethical actions may have irreversible consequences, and may strain the close relationship between our government and our Afghan neighbours. We are asking for the refugees to be dealt with in a more humanitarian, balanced manner. The best policy is to be friendly towards one's neighbours, and to uphold the principle that all people are equal."

On May 14, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quoted Iranian deputy foreign minister Mehdi Safari as saying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had agreed to a change of policy, so that the Afghans would be sent home in a "gradual and orderly way". Safari made the announcement at a meeting with President Karzai in Kabul.

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR's editor in Kabul. Sudabah Afzali and Sadeq Behnam are freelance reporters in Herat.