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IRAN: Afghan Refugees – Pawns in Standoff with West

Analysis by Kimia Sanati

TEHRAN, May 15 2007 (IPS) - As the Iranian regime firmly implements a plan to repatriate the bulk of an estimated one million Afghan refugees living illegally on its soil, it is apparent that the move is aimed at embarrassing the West over its failures in the region.

Clues to regime&#39s thinking became clear in statements on the issue given to presspersons by Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohmmadi at the inauguration of the ‘Asian Centre to Decrease Risk of Tremor in Iran&#39 and cited by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) on May 9.

Pour-Mohammadi said after the United States and NATO troops entered Afghanistan, promising to establish security and remove poverty, the number of Afghan refugees entering Iran has only increased. "I have visited Afghans&#39 camps here and I noticed that most of them who have been arrested recently and returned to their country entered Iran in two or three past years,&#39&#39 IRNA quoted him as saying.

"Why should a group of people (the U.S. and NATO) come from the other side of the world to Afghanistan and Iranians pay the compensation,&#39&#39 Pour-Mohammadi reasoned. "During the internal war in Afghanistan a large group of Afghans stayed in Iran for a long period, but there is no reason we tolerate a large number of refugees who have entered Iran during the past 2 or 3 years,&#39&#39 he was quoted by IRNA as saying.

The minister clearly wanted the world&#39s attention to be drawn to the refugee problem. Iran is currently being threatened with a third round of international sanctions over its controversial nuclear programme. Since December, the United Nations has imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment – which Tehran insists is meant for power generation rather than making nuclear bombs.

"World community must be sensitive to this (Afghan refugees) issue, many abnormalities have been imposed on us: production of narcotics has increased three to four times, insecurity, terror and trouble-making are among the things being imposed on us,&#39&#39 IRNA quoted Pour-Mohammadi as saying.

On May 12, Pour-Mohammadi&#39s deputy Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr announced that 85,000 unregistered Afghan refugees had been sent back across the border in the space of three weeks and that the arrest-and-deport drive would continue.

Zolghadr, mindful of legitimate Afghan concerns, said the plan did not apply to refugees residing in Iran legally and otherwise abiding by the law. He also said that Iran was prepared to provide jobs for Afghans who have legal residence status.

Since the Taliban was ousted in 2001 Iran has almost annually issued warnings to Afghan refugees to return to their homeland. Many have gone back with the help of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees but insecurity and lack of jobs, medical treatment and proper education have forced many of them to come back illegally.

According to a U.N. report only about five percent of the 915,000 registered Afghan refugees in Iran live in camps and the majority are dispersed in urban areas throughout the country. With an estimated one million more unregistered Afghans, Iran harbours the largest number of refugees in the world after Pakistan – where refugees are confined to camps.

The plan to expel illegal Afghan residents is presently being carried out in nine Iranian provinces where more than 85 percent of illegal Afghan residents live and work. During the first three months of the plan 500,000 Afghans are to be expelled, Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA) reported.

For the first time all expatriated Afghans are to be be finger-printed to help prevent their return to Iran. Afghans arrested by the Iranian police will be held in camps for 24 to 48 hours before being expelled from Iran, ILNA said.

Reports have surfaced of abuse by Iranian police. Several Afghans expelled from Iran were hospitalised upon their return to Afghanistan for alleged beatings and Afghan officials confirmed the death of one refugee in hospital, the reports said.

The sudden influx of expatriates has caused great concern in Afghanistan. In a telephone talk on May 9, Afghanistan&#39s parliament speaker Mohammad Yunus Qanuni asked his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Ali Haddad Adel to help prevent expulsion of Afghans, the Iranian Students News Agency reported.

On May 11, the country&#39s refugees minister Ustad Akbar Akbar lost his job over the problem of forced return of refugees. A day later, Afghanistan&#39s parliament voted to sack foreign minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta for failing to convince Iranians to stop forcing refugees to go home.

"Iranian officials say only Afghans illegally residing and working in Iran are expatriated but when they storm workshops and other places where Afghan labourers work, they don&#39t even ask for a refugee status registration card or let us take our wages from our employers. They just bus everyone to temporary camps to expel them," Najibullah, an Afghan day labourer told IPS.

"I fled my native village near Mazar-e-Sharif fearing the Taliban when I was a teenager. I came to Iran ill and on the verge of dying from starvation. Here we are always treated as inferiors. The majority of us are illiterate and we have to take the worst jobs for low wages but at least we are better off than back home," Najibullah said.

"I went back to Mazar two years ago but had to return to Iran after a few months. Things are still pretty bad there and people live very hard lives. There aren&#39t jobs or proper medical facilities. I&#39ll hide away for some time now. Maybe this wave of expulsion will be over like in the past years," he said.

Soon after the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, the UNHCR had started a trilateral plan with the governments of Iran and Afghanistan to repatriate Afghan refugees.

In February, Iran agreed with the government of Afghanistan and the UNHCR to extend a voluntary repatriation programme until the end of the current Iranian year (Mar. 20, 2008). The agreement applies only to registered refugees.

The ever-rising unemployment rate in Iran is one reason that has prompted the Iranian government to expel Afghans who are seen to be taking away job opportunities from Iranians.

"Government officials claim Afghans are taking away a million and a half job opportunities from Iranians. They are hardworking and happy with smaller wages, so employers prefer them. If they are sent back, there will be a huge shortage of manual labor in construction, industries and agriculture," an observer in Tehran told IPS.

"Replacing Afghan workers by Iranians can help the Ahmadinejad administration reduce the nagging problem of unemployment but can affect the already ailing economy adversely. Even Tehran municipality relies heavily on an Afghan work force. In spite of the mayor&#39s orders not to employ them, the municipality is still one of the largest employers of Afghans," he added.

"Iran has over all these years carried the burden of refugees. Afghans who work here send their money home and do not pay taxes. The refugees benefit from state food and energy subsidies as well as medical and educational facilities. It is a sin to send them back to misery and it is hard to keep them here. So the only way out is that the rest of the world should take more responsibility and help Iran to deal with the problem of the refugees until things are really back to normal in Afghanistan and the refugees can return home," he said.

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