Afghanistan ill-prepared as Iran deports thousands

KABUL, Afghanistan — Nearly 100,000 Afghan migrants have been expelled from Iran over the past month and the total could reach 1 million by next spring, according to Tehran officials who say they are trying to protect the jobs of Iranians.

The mass repatriation is straining the resources of the Afghan government and international aid agencies operating in the region. There are reports that some of those deported have suffered inhumane treatment, including physical abuse, loss of belongings and separation from their families.

In the western Afghan provinces of Farah and Nimroz, aid agencies have set up tent communities and food-distribution points to accommodate the returnees.

Afghan and foreign aid officials have called on Tehran to carry out the deportations in a “humane and orderly” manner to allow them to better handle the more than 90,000 undocumented Afghans who have returned since April 21.

“UNHCR recognizes the Iranian government’s right to tackle illegal migration on its soil, but we have strongly appealed to the authorities to do so in a humane manner, treating deportees with dignity and giving them time to pack and make arrangements for their families,” said Salvatore Lombardo, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Afghanistan.

Since the 1979 Soviet invasion, more than 5 million Afghans have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

There are 920,000 registered Afghan refugees in Iran, according to UNHCR, which estimates there are up to 1 million more living there illegally. Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi said Tehran wants 1 million Afghans to be repatriated by March.

Iran’s eastern border city of Zabul has been almost emptied of its once-large Afghan population, while a senior security official in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province was quoted by the IRNA news agency as saying the area is now off-limits to foreigners, including both legal and illegal Afghan refugees.

The director-general for the employment of foreign nationals also told IRNA that Iranians who employ undocumented Afghans will face court cases.

The government of Pakistan, meanwhile, approved a plan to repatriate an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees and close all refugee camps by 2009, unidentified officials told the Pakistani daily Dawn.

Pakistan, which contends that refugee camps are fertile recruiting grounds for Taliban insurgents, plans this year to close four camps that hold hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Iran, for its part, maintains that the illegal migrants on its territory were given ample warning and that the deportations have been gradual. The government says it is now targeting Afghans who work illegally for low wages on the grounds that they undercut Iranian workers.

But many analysts think the move is politically motivated and should be seen in the context of Tehran’s confrontation with the West. Afghanistan is a close U.S. ally that relies heavily on U.S. and NATO troops for security.

The massive influx of deportees catches the Afghan government ill-prepared, prompting President Hamid Karzai and aid officials to call for a surge of international support.

“Local community and government authorities are responding, but their resources are very limited. Many of these people are returning with nothing. We need to mobilize international resources as soon as possible to avert a humanitarian crisis,” said Fernando Arocena, chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration.

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