The New York Times, November 20, 2013

Afghan refugees in Iran face abuse, forced deportations: HRW

In many cases, Afghan children discovered on the street have been arrested by the Iranian authorities and summarily deported, separating them from families who may have been in the country for years

By Rod Nordland

KABUL, Afghanistan — They have few rights, can be arrested on sight and deprived of a trial, and are often deported four, five or more times — and no sooner are they across the border than they head back.

Sometimes they are victims of vigilante justice; routinely, as unauthorized immigrants, they are denied work.

But for all those problems, up to three million Afghan migrants still seem to be finding a generally better life in Iran, with greater job and educational opportunities and more rights for women.

This often contradictory situation is addressed in a new report released by Human Rights Watch on Wednesday. The study found that Afghans in Iran are routinely deprived of their rights as refugees and subjected to arbitrary abuse.

Newly arrived Afghan refugees rest in a detention camp for refugees in the southern Iranian town of Zahedan
Newly arrived Afghan refugees rest in a detention camp for refugees in the southern Iranian town of Zahedan near the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan June 19, 2001. (Photo: Reuters)

Yet they keep coming, in numbers that have made Iran a leading destination for Afghans leaving their country: 800,000 Afghans are registered as refugees in Iran, and two million others are illegal migrants. Pakistan has 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, and 500,000 to a million Afghans there illegally.

Afghans are still the world’s most numerous refugees. The official number of Afghan refugees, 2.6 million, is more than double that of the next largest refugee groups, Somalis and Syrians — and when estimates of illegal migrants are included in the count, the lead grows.

Uncertainty about Afghanistan’s future has reversed years of decline in the flow of refugees out, in which Afghans returning consistently outnumbered those fleeing. For years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has run a program of voluntary repatriation, offering aid and resettlement assistance to Afghans who return from Pakistan and Iran. Last year as many as 94,000 Afghans answered the call.

But this year so far, only 37,000 Afghans have returned, a mere 8,000 of them from Iran.

That means Afghanistan again has a net outflow of people, in numbers not seen since the American invasion in 2001. Afghans seeking asylum in Western and other industrialized countries numbered 36,000 last year, according to the United Nations refugee agency, and the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations says the most recent figures show 60,000 Afghan asylum seekers this year.

For those without the means to flee to Europe, the Americas or Australia, the country of choice has become Iran, which has much better job and educational prospects than Pakistan, and where many Afghans speak the language. (Persian is closely related to the Dari language widely spoken in Afghanistan.)

But as the number of Afghans there has grown, Iran has made it nearly impossible for them to claim the refugee status that would give them international legal rights and access to aid, medical care and education.

“Iran is deporting thousands of Afghans to a country where the danger is both real and serious,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, as the group’s 124-page report was released. “Iran has an obligation to hear these people’s refugee claims rather than sweeping them up and tossing them over the border to Afghanistan.”

The report expressed particular concern about the conditions for Afghan children, many of whom sneaked alone into Iran, seeking work for their families at home. In many cases, Afghan children discovered on the street have been arrested by the Iranian authorities and summarily deported, separating them from families who may have been in the country for years.

Like other deportees, such children are expected to pay for their transport to the border, and for food while they are in detention and transit centers. Those who cannot are often beaten and starved, according to interviews cited in the report.

“Afghan migrant children in Iran can be arrested at virtually any time, with little or no access to legal due process or the protections guaranteed children under international law,” the report said.

Over all, Human Rights Watch said, as many as 1,500 people a day are deported across Iran’s two official border crossings with Afghanistan — particularly the crossing at Islam Qala, a sandy town on the main highway to the city of Herat in western Afghanistan.

Afghan refugees are forcibly repatriated six days a week. They arrive on foot, by bus and in taxis. Some have suitcases filled with years of belongings; others have only the clothes on their backs. When asked, most say they were deported because of improper paperwork.

Afghan border officials say the numbers have surged in recent months. A bazaar has cropped up to serve the traffic between the two nations, with storefronts lined with goods and vendors crowding the streets, selling food and beverages. Transport trucks idle in long lines along the sides of the road.

But even though Iran deported more than a quarter-million Afghans last year, according to figures compiled by the International Organization for Migration, Afghans return repeatedly. Their overall numbers in Iran have stayed roughly the same, according to estimates by Iranian refugee officials.

On a smaller scale, the same thing has been happening in Pakistan.

“These countries have indeed been extremely patient and flexible in dealing with millions of people, and largely they have had to bear the impact of those numbers alone,” Bo Schack, the United Nations refugee agency’s representative in Afghanistan, said on Wednesday.

Iran, in particular, has not received the sort of international and charitable aid for refugees that Pakistan has, in part because of Western sanctions.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch said, Iran has embarked on a plan to expel 1.6 million illegal residents by 2015, while pressuring legal refugees to leave as well. So far, it has had little success.

“Iran has shouldered the burden of hosting one of the world’s largest refugee populations for more than three decades, but it needs to meet international standards for their treatment,” said Mr. Stork, the Human Rights Watch official. “Afghanistan may be even more dangerous now than when many of these refugees first fled. Now is not the time for Iran to send them home.”

Azam Ahmed contributed reporting from Islam Qala, Afghanistan.

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