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Sanctuary turns sour for army of Afghan exiles

By Justin Huggler
The Independent (London)
June 30, 2000

MOHAMED ARIF remembers the day the police caught him. He was walking along a central Tehran street when some officers asked to see his identification. "I was begging them to forgive me," he says. "I managed to break free and I ran, but they caught up and started beating me. Eventually the locals saw me crying and asked the police to have pity. They said I had to give them a bribe so I gave them everything I had in my pocket."

Mr Arif is not a criminal, he is a refugee. His "crime" was to be born a citizen of one of the world's most war-torn countries, Afghanistan, and to flee to Iran in search of safety.

Iran hosts more refugees than any other country in the world and the Afghans make up the single largest refugee community anywhere. A staggering 1.4 million Afghans are documented, and the Iranian government estimates undocumented cases put the total above 2 million.

They have been coming for 21 years, fleeing misery after misery - the Soviet invasion, the civil war, the advance of the fundamentalist Taliban - and for years the Iranians accepted them. But now they have had enough. With 20 per cent unemployment, they are bitter at losing jobs to the Afghans, who will work for a pittance - a pittance is more than they had in Afghanistan - and there have been government warnings that all undocumented Afghans will have to leave.

Last year, 100,000 Afghans were deported. Abdul Iqbal's brother was one of them. "The police asked him for a 'fine' but he was sick of bribing them and refused," Mr Iqbal says. "So they sent him back with just $ 40 (pounds 25) to pay his way. Now we have no news of him. I phoned our home town in Afghanistan but he hasn't arrived. It would have been better if he'd given them some money."

The refugees are not just afraid of being caught in the crossfire if they return to Afghanistan. Many are Shia Muslims, hated by the Sunni Taliban. There are believed to have been mass killings of Shias after the Taliban captured the northern city of Mazar-i-Sherif in 1998.

The Taliban has since given assurances about the safety of Shias but Iran's refugees are unconvinced.

Hussein Khayam fought for a Shia faction in the battle over Mazar. He had already fled Kabul after the Taliban captured it.

After Mazar fell, he had to abandon his wife and children and flee to Iran.

"I only just escaped with my life," he says. "They would have killed me."

His identity card allowing him to stay on in Iran has expired. "Now I don't know what to do, where to go," he says. "They say we all have to leave in two months. If I go back to Afghanistan, as soon as I get there they will kill me."

In an effort to stop the deportations, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has set up a screening programme with the Iranian authorities. Successful applicants can win asylum: the right to stay on in Iran until conditions improve in Afghanistan.

But the programme has been overwhelmed. The dayits office opened in Tehran, 3,000 Afghans tried to apply, and there was a near riot. Itwill take until February to process the applications.

"The Iranians have been very generous in defining who can stay," says Yusuf Hassan, of the UNHCR. "They've gone far beyond their commitments under the Refugee Convention."

The Iranians are granting asylum to the ill, those in university education, and to all educated women. But applying is a gamble: if your application is refused, you have 10 days to get out of Iran. And many Afghans say they have not bothered applying because they do not believe the UNHCR can do anything for them.

Back at the UNHCR building, a man emerges from his interview. He was an instructor in the pro-Soviet Afghan army, and says his life is in danger in Afghanistan. "If they don't give us asylum, I'll bring my wife and children here," he says. "They can set fire to us. Because if they send us back, we'll be killed."


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