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
"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."