The Epoch Times, October 4, 2007
Afghan Refugees Meet with Cold Welcome in Iran
Millions of refugees face poverty, discrimination, and the constant threat of forced deportations
By Arjang Hemmati
TEHRAN— Thirteen-year-old Mohammad Bahari swings the long-end of a grain broom in a quite street in uptown Tehran in the early hours of morning.
His boyish face and small figure resemble a child of no more than 10, making it difficult to believe he's a contractor employee with the city.
Mohammad Bahari sweeps a street in uptown Tehran. (Arjang Hemmati/The Epoch Times)
Eight months ago, Mohammad and his 20-years-old brother snuck over the Iranian border from Afghanistan.
"It's better here, there are no jobs there [in Afghanistan]," says Mohammad.
His brother was recently taken by the authorities back to Afghanistan, leaving him as the sole provider for his 5-member family back home.
Each month, his 130,000 Toman (US$140) salary is deposited directly to his family. For his own expenses, he relies on donations from the wealthy households he collects garbage from in the evenings, and shares a city-provided trailer with 7 other Afghans.
Mohammad considers himself luckier than many of his fellow Afghans who have been deported. Just last morning, 4 of his roommates were taken by the authorities while they ate breakfast. The rest managed to escape.
One time, Mohammad was taken among a mix of adult Afghans to be sent back, but was later released. The local police chief told him they don't take back children under 15, because the long trip in the hot summer is too tiring.
There are an estimated 1.5 million illegal Afghan migrants in Iran, and 920,000 registered Afghan refugees. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Afghanistan continues to be the leading country of origin of refugees, with the majority of these refugees residing in Pakistan and Iran.
The first big wave of Afghan migrants to Iran came around the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when around 1.5 million Afghans fled to the neighboring countries.
While some have returned home during more peaceful times, the outflow of Afghans has taken hikes during the Taliban takeover and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Afghans in Iran are mostly hired in the agriculture and construction sectors, and are known to work harder for lower wages compared to local workers, making them a preferred choice for employers, but inviting hostility from locals who see the Afghans as undercutting their wages.
The Iranian government views Afghans as burdens on its economy, and has been putting measures in place to repatriate the Afghan migrants for some years.
If an Afghan man marries an Iranian, their marriage is considered illegal unless the man registers with Iranian authorities, then goes back to Afghanistan to clear a background check, and after obtaining the proper documents comes to Iran. He then gets a one-year residency permit that he has to renew each year. He also obtains other relevant documents that allow him to work, but the monthly fees he is required to pay take a very huge chunk out of his usually low monthly salary.
Access to education has also become restricted for Afghan children, since they are required to pay for their education, making it practically impossible for many of these children to go to school because their low-income families can't afford the tuition.
An official from Iran's Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA) says 85 percent of Afghans are not satisfied with their lives in Iran, and about 95 percent of them are living in poverty. He says in years 2004 and 2005 their rate of return was high, but although the situations were made more difficult for them, the rate dropped in the following two years.
Earlier this year, Iranian interior minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi announced that Tehran plans to repatriate one million Afghans by March 2008, and gave warnings to illegal Afghans to leave the country on their own.
In April, the government began to forcibly deport Afghans back to their home country. Within a short period of time, nearly 100,000 Afghans were sent across the Afghan border.
"These refugees are there without any electricity, water, food, and jobs," says Sohila Farhad, an activist with the Afghanistan-based RAWA humanitarian organization, of the Afghans forcibly deported.
"Around the borders the families are not complete. One is searching for a son, and they're searching for a husband, and they're searching for another member of the family," she says.
And in many cases, Iranian police used violent means to deport the Afghans.
"[Iranian] Police has a very bad behaviour with these refugees, like beating them, and insulting them," says Farhad.
Vivian Tan, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, tells a similar story.
"We had reports, people who basically have been deported were telling us that the manner in which the deportation was carried out was often sudden, they were not given any notice; there were times when in the middle of the night the Iranian authorities would just storm into people's houses and arrest them and deport them," says Tan.
A deported man showed his stained shirt and said, "they [Iranian security forces] kept on punching and kicking me in the face and head while I was bleeding".
IRIN News, April 30, 2007
Sometimes, she says, registered Afghans with the proper documents who were mixed in with the unregistered ones were taken back too, but once UNHCR found out about them, they would try to bring them back.
Since the illegal migrants are not registered with the Iranian government, they are not considered "refugees."
"Technically, they're not of concern to UNHCR and the Iranian government considers them illegal immigrants, but we have problems with the way people were being deported," says Tan.
Yet Iran defends its decision to deport the Afghans, saying the Afghan migrants strain Iran's economy and take away jobs from local people.
"Each country has sensitivities about the presence of illegal citizens on its own territory which has different political, social, economic and security consequences," Iran's interior ministry said in a statement.
Thankfully, according to Tan, protestations from the Afghan government, the international community, and the UNHCR has led the Iranian government to tone down its violent approach, and the number of forced deportations have even decreased in recent months.
"In terms of these recent deportations, they have in a way been quite responsive to our protest," says Tan. "They have tried to give us better access to the border areas, to find out if registered Afghans were truly being deported."
Additional reporting by Bahareh Meehandust in Rasht, Iran
Characters Count: 8054