TEHRAN, 29 Jun 2004 (IRIN) - Afghans have been streaming into Iran for
decades, fleeing war, despotic leaders, fanatical regimes and economic misery.
In 2000 alone, almost a quarter of a million Afghans sought refuge in Iran from
the feared Taliban rulers.
In this special report, IRIN examines the
plight and challenges facing Afghans living in Iran, which alongside Pakistan,
remains one of the largest host countries to the Afghan diaspora today.
Iran has one of the largest Afghan refugee populations
in the world. According to the Iranian interior ministry's Bureau of Aliens and
Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA), the coordinating body for refugee affairs,
there were 2,349,068 Afghans living in Iran in April 2001, not including the
thousands of Afghan migrant workers living illegally in the
But for 20 years, the Iranian government has had an exemplary
policy towards the refugees living amongst them. Unsupported by the
international community they have spent millions of dollars on the Afghan
In fact, comparing the number of refugees that have been
living in Iran to the number taken by western countries, and comparative wealth
figures, Tehran has shouldered a large part of the burden on its
Since the beginning of a joint voluntary repatriation programme in
April 2002 under the facilitation of the office of the United Nations High
Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) over 750,000 Afghan refugees have returned to
their homeland, over 70,000 since April this year alone.
repatriation process in Iran takes place within the framework of a tripartite
agreement, known as the Joint Programme, between the Iranian government, the
Afghan authorities and the UN refugee agency. The first joint programme covered
a one-year period until the end of March 2003. The second joint programme covers
the period from the end of March 2003 to the end of March 2005.
aims of the Joint Programme are to ensure that repatriation is voluntary, takes
place with dignity and is bolstered by assistance towards reintegration once in
Afghanistan.TORBAT-E-JAM REFUGEE CAMP
Unlike Pakistan, the
vast majority of Afghan refugees do not live in refugee camps but are largely
integrated into Iranian society. Most live in the larger urban areas of the
country like the capital Tehran, although seven refugee camps are still in
Built 10 years ago with a capacity of 10,000 people,
Torbat-e-Jam refugee camp looks more like a suburban housing complex than a
refugee camp. With wide shrub-lined avenues, several parks, a football field, a
gym, and a bazaar it is often described as one of the best refugee camps in the
Some 5,300 Afghans currently live in Torbat-e-Jam, housed in the
928 houses that line the roads. Some 1,450 students attend the camp school,
which has 117 Iranian teachers.
The longest-serving residents have been
here for 10 years, with many of the male breadwinners having special permission
to leave the camp to pick pistachios in nearby fields.
But despite the
comforts, for some this does not really feel like home.
|Young Hossein has been in Iran most of his
"I don't know what the future holds. I
don't know whether I want to stay in Iran or go to Afghanistan," Shireen, a
16-year old studying journalism, told IRIN. "I realise that I have no real
prospects - after I've done my journalism, I can't work in Iran as a journalist
and what real job opportunities are there in Afghanistan?"
But in the
bazaar, run by the refugees, the younger generations who have not known anywhere
else are more positive. Hossein, aged 12, sits behind a sewing machine in one of
the 40 shops in the market. He has been working with his father as a tailor for
the past two years.
"I don't want to leave. All my friends are here. I
like it here," he told IRIN, as his friends pop in to say hello. Hossein has
been here most of his life - he says the prospect of returning to Afghanistan
worries him.SULEYMANKHANI VOLUNTARY REPATRIATION
Many others, however, have opted to return. Standing under the
blistering heat, hundreds of Afghans, clutching an assortment of documents, wait
their turn at the Suleymankhani Voluntary Repatriation Centre(VRC) on the
outskirts of Tehran. They wait until they are summoned, via loudspeaker, to be
seen by staff member from BAFIA. For most Afghans here, this is the first step
towards returning to a country that many of them cannot remember or even have
never known - 31 percent of Afghan refugees were born in Iran.
Rezai is waiting for his exit permit to leave Iran. He is 29 years old and works
in a gas cylinder factory in Tehran.
"My parents died in the war and I
came to Iran - I've been here for 15 years. I want to stay in Iran. It's my home
now, and I've got nothing in Afghanistan, nothing to go back to. But staying in
Iran is no longer an option - they say we all have to go back," he told IRIN.
"It's tiring and it's hard," he explained.
But through a screening
process, UNHCR is working to ensure that repatriation is voluntary and protects
Afghans who do not wish to be repatriated.
A UNHCR member of staff said
that there was a paucity of buses used to take the Afghans to the border. Some
24 buses a day leave Tehran for the 18-hour journey to the border. "At the
moment there's a transport issue - there are problems with the contractors -
they're saying they can't provide enough buses," he told IRIN.
has been giving the Afghans appointments to obtain their LPs [laissez-passer,
the exit permit]. They de-register 4,000 Afghans a day and issue 700-800 LPs; so
for the rest, they have to wait."
Abdul Ghai has been told his
appointment is in two weeks. "You get shuttled from one place to another," he
told IRIN. In Afghanistan, Ghai worked as an army captain. In Iran he works as a
"I've been building this country. Now I want to go back and help
build my own," he said. He lost his parents when the Soviet army invaded
Afghanistan. For the sake of his children, he decided to flee the
|Afghans stand in line outside the Suleymankhani VRC in
the Iranian capital Tehran. |
There are 11
VRCs in Iran, specifically in place to aid the repatriation of Afghan refugees.
Three new VRCs are being opened in Ahwaz, Kermanshah and Orumieh. Tehran has two
VRCs as it is home to the largest Afghan population - in 2001 there were 791,800
Afghans living there; 374,800 Afghans live in the south-eastern province of
Sistan Baluchestan; 238,300 live in the ancient city of Esfahan; and 225,800 in
the eastern province of Khorasan.
The bureaucratic process is lengthy -
Afghans must undergo a series of formalities with BAFIA.
Any refugee who
was registered in 2001 by BAFIA must be de-registered to avoid a "revolving door
scenario" - Afghans who slip back into Iran to re-enter the repatriation process
in order to receive a second dose of benefits.
BAFIA then issues exit
permits, for which a fee is charged to every refugee. UNHCR is in negotiations
with BAFIA to waive this exit fee, which is nearly US $6 per returnee, as this
can add up to a considerable sum for a large family.
The next step is a
confidential interview with a UNHCR representative to check that the decision to
return is really a voluntary one. Refugees are then informed of their rights
under the repatriation programme and are given an overview of the situation in
Afghanistan. At this stage, any vulnerable cases, such as the disabled,
unaccompanied children, or female heads of households, are identified for
special attention. If there are unaccompanied children, UNHCR contacts their
offices in Afghanistan to begin the procedure of tracing their
UNHCR then issues a voluntary repatriation form to serve as proof
of the voluntary nature of the repatriation and a travel document to enter and
stay in Afghanistan.PRESSURE TO LEAVE
Afghans feel under pressure to leave, with benefits for Afghans being
continually cut by the Iranian government.
"The status of Afghans is seen
as having changed profoundly since the fall of the Taliban. The Iranian
government believes that despite instability in Afghanistan, they no longer
[need] fear persecution and therefore they are not obliged to give them the vast
financial support they have been giving them," Angus McDowall, Tehran
correspondent for the Middle East Economic Digest, told IRIN.
are part of new regulations adopted by Tehran in February 2004, intended to
induce increased repatriation. In line with this new strategy, UNHCR is cutting
all educational assistance to Afghans in Iran by the end of this month, and is
progressively reducing assistance towards health care throughout
From September 2004 school fees will be compulsory for all Afghan
children, and are expected to be at the same rate that Iranians must pay. It
will also be obligatory to subscribe to health insurance schemes at full
"Yes, we are decreasing medical assistance, but we want to maintain
assistance for very vulnerable cases - those who can't be assisted on the other
side of the border, like dialysis cases," Xavier Creach, external relations
officer at UNHCR Tehran, told IRIN.
Iranians will also be heavily
penalised for employing illegal Afghan workers - a widespread problem in Iran.
Afghans will also face new restrictions, such as residing in certain cities and
regions, in obtaining mortgages, renting or owning property and opening bank
accounts. A nominal tax for Afghans is also being discussed.
The cuts are
aimed at raising the cost of living for Afghans, making it less attractive for
them to continue to extend their stay in Iran. This month, the entire education
budget for Afghanistan in Iran will be carried over to Afghanistan with efforts
increasingly concentrating on reconstruction in Afghanistan.
diminishing opportunities, not surprisingly there are some Afghans who are
looking forward to the long journey home.
"I left Kabul because of the
war. But I want to return to Afghanistan. It's my country, it's where I want to
die," 21-year-old Mohammad Saleh told IRIN. He has been living in Iran for the
past 10 years, working as a builder on construction sites.
From April to
October 2003, the Iranian authorities conducted a re-registration process of the
Afghan population in Iran against the payment of a fee of roughly US $5 per
person. This re-registration process was only available to Afghans who had
already registered with the authorities in 2001. Formal ID cards were issued,
but with a limited validity of between three and six months. Some 1,450,000
Afghans have so far been re-registered.
This April, BAFIA announced that
it would not renew ID cards, although all Afghans with ID cards will be allowed
to stay until at least 2005, when the tripartite agreement
ends.DISPUTE SETTLEMENT COMMITTEES
In a leafy suburb in
west Tehran, in an unassuming concrete government building, is a Dispute
Settlement Committee (DSC) - a mediation and arbitration system designed solely
for the purpose of helping Afghans to solve legal disputes which keep them from
After lengthy negotiations between the Iranian government
and UNHCR, BAFIA and UNHCR jointly opened DSCs in the seven most densely Afghan
populated provinces in Iran - Shiraz, Esfahan, Kerman, Mashad, Qom, Zahedan and
The DSCs are an alternative to going to court. Each DSC is
composed of a judge, a BAFIA representative, a representative from the Afghan
community and a lawyer contracted by UNHCR.
|Afghan refugees receiving mine awareness prior to
their return home|
Most of the cases are over
rental agreements and back-payments of salaries. "Afghans don't have time to
wait to go through the court system - the system here is extremely slow and it
could take up to two to three years just for a case to be heard," Helle
Ankersen, a UNHCR protection officer told IRIN.
"Many cases are simply
rental cases, with landlords taking advantage of the situation and not giving
the Afghans their deposits back," she said.
And if Iranians refuse to pay
up, or refuse to attend the DSC, the Ministry of Labour gets
"Having the authorities involved gives the DSCs credibility,"
Ankersen stressed. "They simply point out to the Iranian landlord that they
should have special permission to rent out their property to a foreigner - most
of them don't, and so are willing to comply."
Afghan interest in the DSC
has been overwhelming - 2,170 cases have been registered in Tehran so far, with
up to 300 people registering a day. Some 200 cases have been dealt with already,
of which 90 percent had positive outcomes for the Afghans.
"The fact that
Afghans get their money back, and that it's very often an important sum of money
- it's not $20 - can really make a difference to their lives in Afghanistan and
will make reintegration much easier," Creach noted.
The smallest sum of
money claimed has been about $850 and the biggest about
$14,500.REPATRIATION CENTRE AT DOGHAROUN BORDER EXIT
Everyday, nearly 4,000 Afghans arrive at the border exit
station of Dogharoun in north-eastern Iran, tired after the 18-hour bus journey
from Tehran. Some 90 percent of all Afghans enter Afghanistan from
Under a giant corrugated-iron shelter they sit, shaded from
the searing heat, with belongings scattered around them, a short shuttle-bus
ride away from "point zero" and an uncertain future in an unstable country. Many
of them are going back to nothing.
At point zero - where Iran and
Afghanistan meet, a family of Afghans is crossing the border on foot, carting
wheelbarrows filled with everything they own. They are "spontaneous returnees",
who have decided to go back without any formal assistance.
|UNHCR tents at Dogharoun on the
For people who arrive too late, there
is basic accommodation - scores of cocoon-like mud-brick rooms line the central
waiting area. At peak time, over 3,000 Afghans congregate here, entitled to a
piece of bread each and a blanket, a hot meal and breakfast for overnight
"I feel happy that I am going back," 22-year-old Abdullah Rezai
told IRIN. "I want a calm, safe life. I want an education. That's all I want,"
"The main problem we have here is missing returnees - some have
been left behind. Or we get one member of a family who is undocumented - usually
a small child or an elderly person who was either not born at the time of
registration or too old and ill to go," a UNHCR worker told IRIN.
these cases we have an agreement with BAFIA that undocumented members of
otherwise documented families are free to go," he added.
for the border, all Afghans must attend a mine-awareness workshop, given by
Afghan instructors and arranged by an NGO, Ansar Relief Institute. In separate
classes for men, women and children, they are shown various types of mines and
watch an educational film about mine safety. The workshops have been a success -
when the project was launched in 1994, 24 people were being injured by mines
daily. After a year of mine-awareness training, that figure dropped to 10 every
Finally, the Afghans are given provisions to take with them -
cooking equipment and basic rations. And in a separate UNHCR holding tent, there
are special packages including tents for Afghans who are returning from the
earthquake-stricken city of Bam, which was razed to the ground last
"Officially there have been about 600 Afghans returning from
Bam, although there were 3,500 Afghans registered in the city. Many of them lost
everything in the earthquake," Creach said.DOGHAROUN SCREENING
The screening process is for illegal migrants who are arrested
in the street and deported on the grounds of their illegal stay. Dogharoun is
the last chance deportees have of being allowed to stay. In a small brick
building is a screening centre, set up after long negotiations. Iran has taken
the unprecedented step of allowing UNHCR to veto deportations of illegal
migrants who would feel persecution upon return. The UNHCR screening programme
started in May to look into deportation cases - all deportees are entitled to an
interview with UNHCR.
"This gives undocumented deportees a chance to
present a refugee claim. Also it gives us a chance to double-check that
documented deportees are not on the bus that crossed the border," Creach
"There are cases of Afghans arrested on the streets who don't have
their documents with them - they tell us they have their cards at home, so they
should not be deported," he explained.
According to a former agreement
with the Iranian government, UNHCR does not have access to Afghans whose
deportation was ordered by a court of law. There are ongoing discussions with
the judiciary for UNHCR to have access to court cases, which accounts for 14
percent of deportees.
"The screening process is essential as we have to
make sure that deportees are not refugees," Creach said.
About 14 percent
are vulnerable cases - children and disabled, and 1 percent are single women,
travelling on their own. Between 10 and 200 Afghans are screened per
Deportation rates are on the increase in Iran - a fact which worries
"Illegal migrants cannot use the buses that the registered Afghan
refugees with ID cards can use. So they must make their own way to the border
and what we are seeing happening is that they get arrested for being illegal and
what started as a voluntary decision to go back is turning into a deportation,"
Creach said. Such Afghans are often sent to detention centres for illegal
migrants, where they must languish until their paperwork is sorted
The buses were once available to illegal Afghans, and BAFIA has not
given a reason for stopping this arrangement.THE
UNHCR is concentrating its efforts on the reintegration of
Afghans in their own country and is taking steps to ameliorate the process. The
UN refugee agency plans to double transport capacity for returnees' belongings
and are offering new incentives for Afghans to return - Afghan teachers from
Bamyan living in Iran have been told they will be given shelter if they move
If the UNHCR planning figure of half a million returns is achieved
this year, it will leave a population of about 900,000 Afghans in Iran at the
end of the tripartite agreement. There were about 800,000 Afghan workers in Iran
in 1979, when the first refugee arrived. Most of those who will not have
repatriated by March 2005 are concerned by the socioeconomic conditions rather
than by the security situation - Afghanistan being one of the poorest countries
in the world today.
Meanwhile, some Iranian economists are warning that
with such an exodus of Afghan workers, there could be implications for Iran as
it is losing a vital part of its workforce. UNHCR has identified this problem
and is currently in talks with the Iranian government in the hope of
establishing a temporary migration agreement between the two countries, allowing
the breadwinner to come back to Iran to earn money for a short period.
migration framework is inherent to the development of political and
socioeconomic relations between the two countries. It would create a win-win
situation for Afghanistan and Iran," Philippe Lavanchy, UNHCR head of mission,
"Afghans could make a positive contribution to the Iranian
economy," he added.
But with such a slow pace of reconstruction, such an
unstable political climate and a huge developmental gap between Iran and
Afghanistan, with much higher standards of living in Iran, the future is fraught
with challenges for returning Afghans from Iran.