TEHRAN, 12 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - Hundreds of Afghans have been arrested by Iranian police in a crackdown against illegal migrants, according to press reports. The Iranian daily, Iran Emrooz, said on Sunday that legal Afghan refugees have also been arrested and that the arrests have been taking place in the eastern cities of Zahedan, Zabol, Mashad and Kerman over the last two weeks.
The newspaper said those arrested were held in a detention centre for up to four days and that some claim to have been beaten, although the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that so far, they could not confirm these reports.
"UNHCR is concerned that some registered refugees could have been taken in this wave of arrests and we have intervened to make sure this doesn't happen - it has happened but only in a few cases," Xavier Creach, UNHCR press officer, in Tehran told IRIN on Tuesday.
"We have people in the field, protection people in close contact with the authorities and Afghan community leaders and we are carefully monitoring the situation," he said. Creach told IRIN that in addition to their staff on the ground, there is also a screening process in Dogharoon, near the Afghan border, to make sure only illegal migrants and not genuine refugees, are deported.
Recently the Iranian government launched a campaign aimed at deporting illegal Afghan migrant workers and introducing heavy fines for Iranians who employ them.
But the authorities deny heavy-handedness. "What this group of Afghan refugees is saying is against the policies of the Islamic Republic. There is no reason that Iran, after playing host to Afghan refugees for more than two decades, would adopt harsh policing measures," Ahmad Hosseini, Director General of the Iranian interior ministry's Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) told the BBC.
"Only the issue of Afghan refugees who are staying in Iran illegally is being addressed. And if the arrest and mistreatment of other refugees is true, the issue will be investigated," he said.
More than a million Afghans refugees have officially returned home from Iran since UNHCR started its voluntary repatriation programme in April 2002. The 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 main 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.
UNHCR estimates there are still 950,000 Afghan refugees in Iran. The number of illegal Afgahn immigrants is not known but the government estimates there are between 2 - 300,000 Afghans illegally living in Iran - many say the number is much higher.
UNHCR is negotiating the renewal of the tripartite agreement which will end on 22 March this year. UNHCR is working with the Iranian authorities to find solutions for the remaining Afghans, which includes the possibility of temporary economic migratory status.
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