No sanctuary

In 1996, in the midst of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, my cousin Saboor, a fresh-faced and ambitious 20-year-old, left Afghanistan to seek refuge in Iran. He was hoping to find work and save enough money to migrate to Europe and get an education. He was never heard from again.

Some time later, Saboor’s father went to Tehran in search of him. Like most single men that migrate to Iran, Saboor had entered the country illegally, making him virtually impossible to track down. His father could not find him. Iranian authorities had little sympathy for his cause; he was verbally abused and threatened by the Iranian police and was told that one less ‘rat’ from Afghanistan would not be missed.

Ten years on, as far as Saboor’s family are concerned, he has disappeared never to return. A funeral was held a few years after his disappearance to provide some closure for his devastated family. Unfortunately, my cousin’s story is not uncommon in Afghanistan; his fate provides a glimpse into the troubling situation of Afghan refugees in Iran.

After Pakistan, Iran is the biggest recipient of Afghan refugees. Historical, cultural, and linguistic links between Afghanistan and Iran have always been strong, and the majority of refugees are Shi’a Muslims who look to Iran, the world’s sole Shi’a state, for protection. Iranian policy towards Afghanistan’s refugees, however, has always been ambivalent at best and in recent years has become significantly harsher. Increasingly, Iranian policy and attitude towards refugees from Afghanistan has descended into open hostility, with a tendency towards xenophobic scapegoating of the Afghan population, particularly given Iran’s serious unemployment problems.

Judging by Iran’s immigration legislation, the Government increasingly views its Afghan refugee population as a burden. In 2001, after ordering the police to round up Afghan refugees, Interior Minister Musavi-Lari Shahrud proclaimed that Iran’s plan to provide legal foreign nationals with residency permits would simply encourage more Afghans to immigrate. Following this statement, the Student News Agency in Iran identified Afghans living in Iran as the ‘main cause’ of high unemployment among Iranian youth.

This scare story, reminiscent of Western representation of asylum-seekers, does not bear closer scrutiny. Afghan refugees in Iran are not demographically significant enough to have the kind of effect on Iran’s unemployment cited by officials. Also, the cheap, predominantly manual work taken up by Afghans often fills a labour shortage.

Stories of beatings and abuses by Iranian employers are, moreover, prevalent within the Afghan community. Soraya, a former schoolfriend of mine in Afghanistan, worked as a maid in Tehran for three years and her story is illustrative of Afghans’ position in Iranian society. She migrated there as she felt that she would integrate into Iranian society with less difficulty than elsewhere because of the shared heritage between the two countries. Though Soraya had the good fortune of finding employment and acquiring a work permit, her employer paid her minuscule wages and frequently beat her. She felt unable to seek help for fear of losing her job. Countless other Afghans face the same predicament as Soraya.

The best illustration of the gravity of Afghanistan’s problems is that, despite their treatment in Iran, Afghans still prefer the comparative safety and hopes of economic progress offered in Iran to the still unstable political and economic landscape back home. This makes their forced deportation by the Iranian Government all the more inhumane.

This policy, in frank contravention of the UN Convention on Refugees, has been given a veneer of legality through the term ‘voluntary repatriation’. As early as 1999 the Iranian Government had plans to deport a large number of Afghan refugees and in 2001 the Afghan Government signed a tripartite accord in Geneva to allow the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Iran. International law requires that, on return, refugees must be guaranteed personal safety, job prospects and improved welfare such as health and education, none of which are present in Afghanistan today.

In 2005, 67,000 Afghans were repatriated from Iran to Afghanistan assisted by the office of the UNHCR. Crackdowns on Afghans continued, with the Director-General of the Iranian Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs announcing stricter limitations on Afghans living in Iran, including restrictions on their social, political or cultural activities. Many Afghans who feel unable to cope with these restrictions have no choice but to return to Afghanistan. 
One of my cousins, Marzia, was forced to return to Afghanistan via the UNHCR repatriation programme in 2005. She was unable to pursue her studies after the Iranian Government legislated that Afghan refugees had to pay school fees – and when UNHCR withdrew their subsidies for refugee education in 2004 she was left helpless. When she experienced health problems during a difficult pregnancy, she could no longer afford the increasing healthcare costs either and was banned from buying medical insurance. On returning to Afghanistan her family faced the increasing security risks as well as economic difficulty as they were unable to find jobs. Personal accounts of refugees who have returned from Iran confirm that the policy of ‘voluntary’ return is far from voluntary. The refugees that remain in Iran face mounting pressure from the Government to leave.

The disappearance of Saboor haunts my family to this day, and the fate of other relations like Soraya and Marzia are worrying, but these are mere drops in an ocean of sad stories. Saboor set out to Iran to find safety and solidarity among people that share our religion, history and even our poetry. We don’t know what he found but countless others who followed him to Iran have had their hopes of finding a sanctuary shattered.

*Zarlasht Halaimzai* is a New Internationalist campaigner.