KABUL , 4 March 2008 (IRIN) - All Afghan citizens in Iran without valid refugee documents will be deported, Seyyed Taghi Ghaemi, director of the Iranian bureau for aliens and foreign immigrants, told reporters at the end of a two-day meeting with Afghan and UN officials in Kabul on 3 March.
The Iranian authorities had announced a temporary suspension of the deportation process in early January due to extremely cold weather in Afghanistan. Now, Iranian officials say the deportation will resume in the near future.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it does not know exactly how many unregistered Afghans are living in Iran, but Iranian officials estimate there are over one million.
There are over 900,000 registered Afghan refugees in Iran, the UNHCR says, and they are legally entitled to stay.
Ghaemi did not specify whether all unregistered Afghans would be expelled from Iran in 2008, but said there would be consultations with the Afghan authorities, adding: "We will deport them from Iran as we encounter them."
The UN and the Afghan government acknowledge Iran's right to deport aliens who enter its territory or stay illegally. However, aid agencies and Afghan officials have repeatedly called on Iran to deport Afghans in a humane and gradual way.
Lack of capacity to absorb deportees
Afghanistan, the fifth least developed country in the world, does not have the capacity to integrate large numbers of returning refugees and deportees, UN and Afghan officials said.
Insecurity, lack of economic opportunities and poor services in Afghanistan are factors which have contributed to a significant decline in voluntary repatriation rates from Iran and Pakistan where over three million Afghan refugees still live.
"Afghanistan's problems are well-known to everyone," said Abdul Qadir Ahadi, Afghan deputy minister of refugees and returnees, adding that his country could not absorb a large number of deportees from Iran.
Afghan officials have warned that mass deportations would cause a humanitarian crisis. Iran deported tens of thousands of Afghans in 2007, which sparked a humanitarian emergency and a political crisis in Afghanistan.
Many Afghans - most of them single males - illegally cross the border into Iran in search of work, according to the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), an independent Kabul-based research organisation.
Remittances from Afghans working in Iran provide a lifeline to many vulnerable families in Afghanistan, AREU says. Cheap Afghan labour is also considered to be beneficial to Iran and Pakistan, where Afghans are widely employed in the construction industry.
"To cut off this source of income for many poor Afghans could have disastrous consequences - not only in the humanitarian, but in the security sphere," said a report of the US Congressional Research Service on the status of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan released in January 2007.
A recent IRIN report highlighted the possibility that poverty could be driving some Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.
The movement of labourers between Afghanistan and Iran has a long tradition, but the Iranian authorities have recently started adopting a tougher stance. Tehran blames unregistered Afghans in Iran for breaking the law on a number of counts: "Those who illegally enter Iran commit several crimes: illegal entry, illegal residence, illegal work and paying human trafficking networks," said Ghaemi.
"What would the USA and Afghanistan do to people who illegally entered their territory?" asked Ghaemi. "They would put them in jail for six months," he said.
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