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Special on Afghan refugees

[Iran] A refugee family at the Torbat-e-Jam refugee camp.
A refugee family at the Torbat-e-Jam refugee camp (IRIN )

Afghans have been streaming into Iran for decades, fleeing war, despotic leaders, fanatical regimes and economic misery. In 2000 alone, almost a quarter of a million Afghans sought refuge in Iran from the feared Taliban rulers.

In this special report, IRIN examines the plight and challenges facing Afghans living in Iran, which alongside Pakistan, remains one of the largest host countries to the Afghan diaspora today.


Iran has one of the largest Afghan refugee populations in the world. According to the Iranian interior ministry’s Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA), the coordinating body for refugee affairs, there were 2,349,068 Afghans living in Iran in April 2001, not including the thousands of Afghan migrant workers living illegally in the country.

But for 20 years, the Iranian government has had an exemplary policy towards the refugees living amongst them. Unsupported by the international community they have spent millions of dollars on the Afghan refugee crisis.

In fact, comparing the number of refugees that have been living in Iran to the number taken by western countries, and comparative wealth figures, Tehran has shouldered a large part of the burden on its own.

Since the beginning of a joint voluntary repatriation programme in April 2002 under the facilitation of the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) over 750,000 Afghan refugees have returned to their homeland, over 70,000 since April this year alone.

The repatriation process in Iran takes place within the framework of a tripartite agreement, known as the Joint Programme, between the Iranian government, the Afghan authorities and the UN refugee agency. The first joint programme covered a one-year period until the end of March 2003. The second joint programme covers the period from the end of March 2003 to the end of March 2005.

The main aims of the Joint Programme are to ensure that repatriation is voluntary, takes place with dignity and is bolstered by assistance towards reintegration once in Afghanistan.


Unlike Pakistan, the vast majority of Afghan refugees do not live in refugee camps but are largely integrated into Iranian society. Most live in the larger urban areas of the country like the capital Tehran, although seven refugee camps are still in existence.

Built 10 years ago with a capacity of 10,000 people, Torbat-e-Jam refugee camp looks more like a suburban housing complex than a refugee camp. With wide shrub-lined avenues, several parks, a football field, a gym, and a bazaar it is often described as one of the best refugee camps in the world.

Some 5,300 Afghans currently live in Torbat-e-Jam, housed in the 928 houses that line the roads. Some 1,450 students attend the camp school, which has 117 Iranian teachers.

The longest-serving residents have been here for 10 years, with many of the male breadwinners having special permission to leave the camp to pick pistachios in nearby fields.

But despite the comforts, for some this does not really feel like home.

Young Hossein has been in Iran most of his life

"I don't know what the future holds. I don't know whether I want to stay in Iran or go to Afghanistan," Shireen, a 16-year old studying journalism, told IRIN. "I realise that I have no real prospects - after I've done my journalism, I can't work in Iran as a journalist and what real job opportunities are there in Afghanistan?"

But in the bazaar, run by the refugees, the younger generations who have not known anywhere else are more positive. Hossein, aged 12, sits behind a sewing machine in one of the 40 shops in the market. He has been working with his father as a tailor for the past two years.

"I don't want to leave. All my friends are here. I like it here," he told IRIN, as his friends pop in to say hello. Hossein has been here most of his life - he says the prospect of returning to Afghanistan worries him.


Many others, however, have opted to return. Standing under the blistering heat, hundreds of Afghans, clutching an assortment of documents, wait their turn at the Suleymankhani Voluntary Repatriation Centre(VRC) on the outskirts of Tehran. They wait until they are summoned, via loudspeaker, to be seen by staff member from BAFIA. For most Afghans here, this is the first step towards returning to a country that many of them cannot remember or even have never known - 31 percent of Afghan refugees were born in Iran.

Mohsen Rezai is waiting for his exit permit to leave Iran. He is 29 years old and works in a gas cylinder factory in Tehran.

"My parents died in the war and I came to Iran - I've been here for 15 years. I want to stay in Iran. It's my home now, and I've got nothing in Afghanistan, nothing to go back to. But staying in Iran is no longer an option - they say we all have to go back," he told IRIN. "It's tiring and it's hard," he explained.

But through a screening process, UNHCR is working to ensure that repatriation is voluntary and protects Afghans who do not wish to be repatriated.

A UNHCR member of staff said that there was a paucity of buses used to take the Afghans to the border. Some 24 buses a day leave Tehran for the 18-hour journey to the border. "At the moment there's a transport issue - there are problems with the contractors - they're saying they can't provide enough buses," he told IRIN.

"So BAFIA has been giving the Afghans appointments to obtain their LPs [laissez-passer, the exit permit]. They de-register 4,000 Afghans a day and issue 700-800 LPs; so for the rest, they have to wait."

Abdul Ghai has been told his appointment is in two weeks. "You get shuttled from one place to another," he told IRIN. In Afghanistan, Ghai worked as an army captain. In Iran he works as a builder.

"I've been building this country. Now I want to go back and help build my own," he said. He lost his parents when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. For the sake of his children, he decided to flee the war.

[Iran] Afghans stand in line outside a VRC in the Iranian capital Tehran.

David Swanson/IRIN
[Iran] Afghans stand in line outside a VRC in the Iranian capital Tehran. ...
Monday, June 21, 2004
[Iran] Afghans stand in line outside a VRC in the Iranian capital Tehran. ...
Afghans stand in line outside the Suleymankhani VRC in the Iranian capital Tehran.

There are 11 VRCs in Iran, specifically in place to aid the repatriation of Afghan refugees. Three new VRCs are being opened in Ahwaz, Kermanshah and Orumieh. Tehran has two VRCs as it is home to the largest Afghan population - in 2001 there were 791,800 Afghans living there; 374,800 Afghans live in the south-eastern province of Sistan Baluchestan; 238,300 live in the ancient city of Esfahan; and 225,800 in the eastern province of Khorasan.

The bureaucratic process is lengthy - Afghans must undergo a series of formalities with BAFIA.

Any refugee who was registered in 2001 by BAFIA must be de-registered to avoid a "revolving door scenario" - Afghans who slip back into Iran to re-enter the repatriation process in order to receive a second dose of benefits.

BAFIA then issues exit permits, for which a fee is charged to every refugee. UNHCR is in negotiations with BAFIA to waive this exit fee, which is nearly US $6 per returnee, as this can add up to a considerable sum for a large family.

The next step is a confidential interview with a UNHCR representative to check that the decision to return is really a voluntary one. Refugees are then informed of their rights under the repatriation programme and are given an overview of the situation in Afghanistan. At this stage, any vulnerable cases, such as the disabled, unaccompanied children, or female heads of households, are identified for special attention. If there are unaccompanied children, UNHCR contacts their offices in Afghanistan to begin the procedure of tracing their family.

UNHCR then issues a voluntary repatriation form to serve as proof of the voluntary nature of the repatriation and a travel document to enter and stay in Afghanistan.


Meanwhile, many Afghans feel under pressure to leave, with benefits for Afghans being continually cut by the Iranian government.

"The status of Afghans is seen as having changed profoundly since the fall of the Taliban. The Iranian government believes that despite instability in Afghanistan, they no longer [need] fear persecution and therefore they are not obliged to give them the vast financial support they have been giving them," Angus McDowall, Tehran correspondent for the Middle East Economic Digest, told IRIN.

The cuts are part of new regulations adopted by Tehran in February 2004, intended to induce increased repatriation. In line with this new strategy, UNHCR is cutting all educational assistance to Afghans in Iran by the end of this month, and is progressively reducing assistance towards health care throughout 2004.

From September 2004 school fees will be compulsory for all Afghan children, and are expected to be at the same rate that Iranians must pay. It will also be obligatory to subscribe to health insurance schemes at full cost.

[Iran] Abdullah Rezai, a refugee in Iran, awaits his return to Afghanistan.

[Iran] Abdullah Rezai, a refugee in Iran, awaits his return to Afghanistan.
Monday, June 28, 2004
[Iran] Abdullah Rezai, a refugee in Iran, awaits his return to Afghanistan.
Abdullah Rezai, a refugee in Iran, awaits his return to Afghanistan

"Yes, we are decreasing medical assistance, but we want to maintain assistance for very vulnerable cases - those who can't be assisted on the other side of the border, like dialysis cases," Xavier Creach, external relations officer at UNHCR Tehran, told IRIN.

Iranians will also be heavily penalised for employing illegal Afghan workers - a widespread problem in Iran. Afghans will also face new restrictions, such as residing in certain cities and regions, in obtaining mortgages, renting or owning property and opening bank accounts. A nominal tax for Afghans is also being discussed.

The cuts are aimed at raising the cost of living for Afghans, making it less attractive for them to continue to extend their stay in Iran. This month, the entire education budget for Afghanistan in Iran will be carried over to Afghanistan with efforts increasingly concentrating on reconstruction in Afghanistan.

With such diminishing opportunities, not surprisingly there are some Afghans who are looking forward to the long journey home.

"I left Kabul because of the war. But I want to return to Afghanistan. It's my country, it's where I want to die," 21-year-old Mohammad Saleh told IRIN. He has been living in Iran for the past 10 years, working as a builder on construction sites.

From April to October 2003, the Iranian authorities conducted a re-registration process of the Afghan population in Iran against the payment of a fee of roughly US $5 per person. This re-registration process was only available to Afghans who had already registered with the authorities in 2001. Formal ID cards were issued, but with a limited validity of between three and six months. Some 1,450,000 Afghans have so far been re-registered.

This April, BAFIA announced that it would not renew ID cards, although all Afghans with ID cards will be allowed to stay until at least 2005, when the tripartite agreement ends.


In a leafy suburb in west Tehran, in an unassuming concrete government building, is a Dispute Settlement Committee (DSC) - a mediation and arbitration system designed solely for the purpose of helping Afghans to solve legal disputes which keep them from leaving Iran.

After lengthy negotiations between the Iranian government and UNHCR, BAFIA and UNHCR jointly opened DSCs in the seven most densely Afghan populated provinces in Iran - Shiraz, Esfahan, Kerman, Mashad, Qom, Zahedan and Tehran.

The DSCs are an alternative to going to court. Each DSC is composed of a judge, a BAFIA representative, a representative from the Afghan community and a lawyer contracted by UNHCR.


Afghan refugees receiving mine awareness prior to their return home
[Iran] Afghan refugees receiving mine awareness prior to their return home.
Monday, June 28, 2004
Marking World Refugee Day
[Iran] Afghan refugees receiving mine awareness prior to their return home.
Afghan refugees receiving mine awareness prior to their return home

Most of the cases are over rental agreements and back-payments of salaries. "Afghans don't have time to wait to go through the court system - the system here is extremely slow and it could take up to two to three years just for a case to be heard," Helle Ankersen, a UNHCR protection officer told IRIN.

"Many cases are simply rental cases, with landlords taking advantage of the situation and not giving the Afghans their deposits back," she said.

And if Iranians refuse to pay up, or refuse to attend the DSC, the Ministry of Labour gets involved.

"Having the authorities involved gives the DSCs credibility," Ankersen stressed. "They simply point out to the Iranian landlord that they should have special permission to rent out their property to a foreigner - most of them don't, and so are willing to comply."

Afghan interest in the DSC has been overwhelming - 2,170 cases have been registered in Tehran so far, with up to 300 people registering a day. Some 200 cases have been dealt with already, of which 90 percent had positive outcomes for the Afghans.

"The fact that Afghans get their money back, and that it's very often an important sum of money - it's not $20 - can really make a difference to their lives in Afghanistan and will make reintegration much easier," Creach noted.

The smallest sum of money claimed has been about $850 and the biggest about $14,500.


Everyday, nearly 4,000 Afghans arrive at the border exit station of Dogharoun in north-eastern Iran, tired after the 18-hour bus journey from Tehran. Some 90 percent of all Afghans enter Afghanistan from Dogharoun.

Under a giant corrugated-iron shelter they sit, shaded from the searing heat, with belongings scattered around them, a short shuttle-bus ride away from "point zero" and an uncertain future in an unstable country. Many of them are going back to nothing.

At point zero - where Iran and Afghanistan meet, a family of Afghans is crossing the border on foot, carting wheelbarrows filled with everything they own. They are "spontaneous returnees", who have decided to go back without any formal assistance.

[Iran] UNHCR tents in Dogharoun on the border.

[Iran] UNHCR tents in Dogharoun on the border.
Monday, June 28, 2004
[Iran] UNHCR tents in Dogharoun on the border.
UNHCR tents at Dogharoun on the border

For people who arrive too late, there is basic accommodation - scores of cocoon-like mud-brick rooms line the central waiting area. At peak time, over 3,000 Afghans congregate here, entitled to a piece of bread each and a blanket, a hot meal and breakfast for overnight stays.

"I feel happy that I am going back," 22-year-old Abdullah Rezai told IRIN. "I want a calm, safe life. I want an education. That's all I want," he said.

"The main problem we have here is missing returnees - some have been left behind. Or we get one member of a family who is undocumented - usually a small child or an elderly person who was either not born at the time of registration or too old and ill to go," a UNHCR worker told IRIN.

"In these cases we have an agreement with BAFIA that undocumented members of otherwise documented families are free to go," he added.

Before leaving for the border, all Afghans must attend a mine-awareness workshop, given by Afghan instructors and arranged by an NGO, Ansar Relief Institute. In separate classes for men, women and children, they are shown various types of mines and watch an educational film about mine safety. The workshops have been a success - when the project was launched in 1994, 24 people were being injured by mines daily. After a year of mine-awareness training, that figure dropped to 10 every 24 hours.

Finally, the Afghans are given provisions to take with them - cooking equipment and basic rations. And in a separate UNHCR holding tent, there are special packages including tents for Afghans who are returning from the earthquake-stricken city of Bam, which was razed to the ground last December.

"Officially there have been about 600 Afghans returning from Bam, although there were 3,500 Afghans registered in the city. Many of them lost everything in the earthquake," Creach said.


The screening process is for illegal migrants who are arrested in the street and deported on the grounds of their illegal stay. Dogharoun is the last chance deportees have of being allowed to stay. In a small brick building is a screening centre, set up after long negotiations. Iran has taken the unprecedented step of allowing UNHCR to veto deportations of illegal migrants who would feel persecution upon return. The UNHCR screening programme started in May to look into deportation cases - all deportees are entitled to an interview with UNHCR.

"This gives undocumented deportees a chance to present a refugee claim. Also it gives us a chance to double-check that documented deportees are not on the bus that crossed the border," Creach said.

"There are cases of Afghans arrested on the streets who don't have their documents with them - they tell us they have their cards at home, so they should not be deported," he explained.

According to a former agreement with the Iranian government, UNHCR does not have access to Afghans whose deportation was ordered by a court of law. There are ongoing discussions with the judiciary for UNHCR to have access to court cases, which accounts for 14 percent of deportees.

"The screening process is essential as we have to make sure that deportees are not refugees," Creach said.

About 14 percent are vulnerable cases - children and disabled, and 1 percent are single women, travelling on their own. Between 10 and 200 Afghans are screened per day.

Deportation rates are on the increase in Iran - a fact which worries UNHCR.

"Illegal migrants cannot use the buses that the registered Afghan refugees with ID cards can use. So they must make their own way to the border and what we are seeing happening is that they get arrested for being illegal and what started as a voluntary decision to go back is turning into a deportation," Creach said. Such Afghans are often sent to detention centres for illegal migrants, where they must languish until their paperwork is sorted out.

The buses were once available to illegal Afghans, and BAFIA has not given a reason for stopping this arrangement.


UNHCR is concentrating its efforts on the reintegration of Afghans in their own country and is taking steps to ameliorate the process. The UN refugee agency plans to double transport capacity for returnees' belongings and are offering new incentives for Afghans to return - Afghan teachers from Bamyan living in Iran have been told they will be given shelter if they move back.

[Iran] Afghan refugees gather at a VRC in Iran.

David Swanson/IRIN
[Iran] Afghan refugees gather at a VRC in Iran. ...
Monday, June 21, 2004
[Iran] Afghan refugees gather at a VRC in Iran. ...
Afghan refugees gather outside a VRC in Iran

If the UNHCR planning figure of half a million returns is achieved this year, it will leave a population of about 900,000 Afghans in Iran at the end of the tripartite agreement. There were about 800,000 Afghan workers in Iran in 1979, when the first refugee arrived. Most of those who will not have repatriated by March 2005 are concerned by the socioeconomic conditions rather than by the security situation - Afghanistan being one of the poorest countries in the world today.

Meanwhile, some Iranian economists are warning that with such an exodus of Afghan workers, there could be implications for Iran as it is losing a vital part of its workforce. UNHCR has identified this problem and is currently in talks with the Iranian government in the hope of establishing a temporary migration agreement between the two countries, allowing the breadwinner to come back to Iran to earn money for a short period.

"A migration framework is inherent to the development of political and socioeconomic relations between the two countries. It would create a win-win situation for Afghanistan and Iran," Philippe Lavanchy, UNHCR head of mission, said.

"Afghans could make a positive contribution to the Iranian economy," he added.

But with such a slow pace of reconstruction, such an unstable political climate and a huge developmental gap between Iran and Afghanistan, with much higher standards of living in Iran, the future is fraught with challenges for returning Afghans from Iran.

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

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