Although only 29, Bibi Gol’s story is one of life's tragedies. Unassisted and penniless, this widowed mother of six stands alone near the Afghan border town of Eslam Qaleh, just minutes away from Iran. Glancing back over the barren frontier she has just been forced to cross, she knows she can never go back, but feels only for her children. "If you can’t help me, at least help my children," she told IRIN.
A refugee from Afghanistan’s central Kapisa Province, Bibi Gol has been living in Iran like millions of other Afghan refugees. Since 1997, her husband had toiled as a day labourer in the capital, Tehran, trying to provide a better life for his young children than the one he had left behind in his war-ravaged country. When he died last year, however, Bibi’s life changed for ever.
Struggling to provide for her children, she borrowed money from relatives and did what was necessary to survive. But, on 7 February, that, too, ended when the Iranian authorities came to her home and confiscated her refugee registration card - the only thing that gives Afghan refugees the legal right to remain in the country. Kept overnight at the Varamin detention centre in Tehran, she succeeded in escaping, only to be rearrested at home with her children the following day. "My children would die without me," she asserted. "How could I leave them alone?"
Subsequently transferred, along with her children, to the Safid Sang detention centre in the northeastern city of Mashhad, she was kept for five nights before being driven across the border from the eastern Iranian town of Dogharun, the main crossing point along the 900-km frontier with Afghanistan.
Lacking money and a place to stay, she now wants to return to the Afghan capital, Kabul, to join distant relatives, but does not know how. Asked if she wanted to return to Iran, she said: "If I return to Iran, they will again put me in a detention centre, and my children will die."
Dramatic as this story may be, Bibi Gol is not alone. Since the beginning of this year, some 1,500 Afghans have been forcibly returned through Dogharun into Eslam Qaleh, a windswept Afghan border crossing point, 120 km west of the of the provincial capital, Herat. The vast majority of such forcible returnees being single adult males, cases like Bibi’s are particularly heart-wrenching.
"We are particularly concerned about cases involving split families, single female-headed households and the elderly," Vanessa Mattar, a protection officer with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told IRIN in Herat. "Although their numbers are low, these people face even greater difficulties," said.
Equally disturbing, however, are reports of alleged human rights abuses at the hands of Iranian authorities. Declining to be identified, one Afghan in Eslam Qaleh told IRIN of forced detentions, beatings and extortion of refugees before being driven over the frontier by Iranian border guards. "It’s not unusual. It’s very common," he said. "The more you talk to people, the more you will understand," another added.
While it is difficult to substantiate such allegations, there are some facts to be considered. Chief among these is that, according to the United Nations, there are 2.3 million Afghan refugees in Iran, rendering it host to the largest number of Afghan refugees in the world today. Indeed, Tehran has generously accepted the burden of this task for the past 20 years, this going largely unrecognised by the international community.
Moreover, thousands of Afghans have gone home voluntarily. According to UNHCR, the total number of spontaneous (unassisted) returnees for the year 2001 was 140,373, while about 30,000 people have spontaneously returned through Eslam Qaleh this year alone. "The changing situation in Afghanistan has prompted people to return," Mattar explained.
This aside, there remains a strong need for compassion on the part of the countries hosting Afghan refugees. This applies not only to Iran but also to Pakistan, which, too, hosts over two million Afghans. Only by means of exercising compassion, combined with strong international support and the voluntary return of Afghan refugees from abroad, will fewer cases like Bibi’s occur.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions