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Iran: Expelled Afghans Face Difficult Conditions On Return

May 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tehran has expelled some 30,000 Afghans from Iran since mid-April in an attempt to repatriate 1 million unregistered Afghan refugees by March 2008. Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondent in Helmand Province, Salih Mohammad Salih, traveled to Nimroz Province on Afghanistan's border with Iran to investigate the crisis. Salih spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari.

RFE/RL: Could you please describe the situation and the conditions for refugees in the border region you visited?

Salih Mohammad Salih: Most of the refugees, who have been forced to return to Afghanistan, are people who had gone to Iran to work and earn a living; many of them are people who were born in Iran and had lived and worked there for years. Since [late April] the return of the refugees has begun and, according to figures [from Afghan authorities], up to more than 30,000 have now been repatriated from Iran -- there are about 1,700 families. Among them are women whose husbands worked in Iran, and police had come to their houses and taken them by force to their cars and then transferred them to the border. Some were detained by police and deported and they didn't even give them time to get their daily wages from their employers. Some have been separated from their families, half of their families are in Iran and the other half were returned to Afghanistan. There are women who are pregnant and have health problems. There's one woman here who was forcibly returned with other Afghans she didn't know; she gave birth here in the house of a resident of this area.

RFE/RL: Iran says those Afghans who are in Iran illegally will be sent back, but from what you're telling us it seems that among the returnee are also Afghans who had documents and permission to stay in Iran?

Salih: Some of them had residency permits but they had expired and were no longer valid; some other refugees had permits that were still valid and they could have stayed in Iran, but security forces did not pay any attention to that, and that is a huge problem.

RFE/RL: Afghan authorities have said they do not have enough resources to accommodate the refugees. Where are the refugees staying upon their return to Afghanistan? Are there any camps and other facilities in Nimroz for refugees?

Salih: For refugees who return to Nimroz, a camp has been set up by residents of this area though government officials have not cooperated with them. Clerics and [religious leaders] have called on people in mosques to help the refugees, so people have gathered food and other items and taken them to the camp for the refugees. They don't have clean water and there is a lack of proper medical care. So far the Red Crescent has set up some 15 tents for the refugees.

RFE/RL: So what happens to the refugees who are now living in this camp? How long do they stay there before they manage to find a place to stay or join their relatives in other parts of Afghanistan?

Salih: Some of the refugees have stayed in the camp for 20 days -- it is really difficult to live there in the heat. I saw for myself what a difficult life they have in the camp. But there are also people who have relatives inside Afghanistan and they come and help them. Some refugees told me they were born in Iran, they grew up there and had a life there; these people don't even know where is the north or south of Afghanistan, they don't know [the country], they don't know where to go, they don't have a house, and they don't know what to do here.

RFE/RL: Iran has also deported illegal Afghan refugees in the past, but it seems that the current forced repatriation is being applied in a tougher manner than before. What are the reasons for this?

Salih: I haven't been able to contact Iranian officials, but those who have been forced to return say that Iranian officials launched a propaganda campaign through state radio and television and they told [Iranians] that if [Afghan] refugees are expelled, then [the] economic situation [for Iranians] will improve; they will have the jobs that are currently occupied by Afghans and they will be able to [more fully] use Iran's natural and economic resources. Some of the refugees said that maybe Iran is opposed to Afghanistan's government, as Iran says Americans troops are in Afghanistan. Also, NATO forces have a presence in Afghanistan and the refugees say maybe Iran wants -- through the expulsion of refugees -- to cause a problem for the Afghan government and [international] forces that are on a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: In the past there were reports that some of the refugees who had been expelled to Iran were able to return there. Is it the same now? Have you received any reports about expelled refugees trying to return to Iran?

Salih: Some of the refugees try to enter Iran in order to bring members of their families who have stayed in Iran back to Afghanistan. Most of them do not want to go to Iran and continue their lives as before, because they have understood that Iran is serious in its drive against Afghans. Therefore, they say that it is possible that Iran will do the same in the future and the living conditions for Afghans will be tougher than before; because of that the majority of those who have been forced to return [to Afghanistan] they will do their best to create favorable conditions to work and live in Afghanistan.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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