Afghan Refugees in Iran Face Uncertain Future

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Afghan Refugees in Iran Face Uncertain Future


AFGHAN REFUGEES IN IRAN FACE UNCERTAIN FUTURE

It was a homecoming, but there was no welcome.

Pushing carts loaded with their belongings, or struggling with over-packed bags and boisterous children, hundreds of Afghan refugees were crossing the wasteland at the Dogharun border point between Iran and Afghanistan.

Spurred by incentives offered by a repatriation program run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Afghans had decided to try their chances back home after years of sheltering in Iran. Buses roared through the checkpoint carrying more refugees to towns further into Afghanistan, such as Kabul or Kandahar.

Taliban guards looked on, turning their backs against the clouds of dust that blow constantly across this remote border point. Some 100,000 Afghans have left Iran since April, when the UNHCR program began. According to the agency, up to 4,500 have been crossing over each week at Dogharun and other border points. But that is a small proportion of Iran's Afghan refugee population, estimated to be anywhere between 1.4 and 2 million, and far fewer than the Iranian government was hoping would take advantage of the UNHCR program.

Most of the Afghans are refugees from the civil war that has gripped the country since the mid-1990s and the emergence of the Taliban movement. But Iran has sheltered successive waves of refugees since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This has imposed a massive strain on the country, and the Iranian government says openly that it is time for the Afghans to go home.

The refugees, however, are reluctant to return to a life under the Taliban's strict Islamic code. Chief among their concerns is the virtual ban on female education. "Here, my daughters can go to school," said Hafiz, one of 7,000 Afghans living in the Torbat-e-Jam refugee camp in Khorasan province, some 30 miles from the border.

Despite his family's limited prospects at this isolated camp, he said they did not want to return to Afghanistan. Even refugees who had signed up to be repatriated told the Washington Report they were worried, as they assembled at the UNHCR transit camp at Dogharun, 100 yards from the border. Some also are concerned about continued fighting.

But Ismail Haideri said he and his family had no choice. "There is no work for us here," he said. "And Iran wants us to go back. They are giving us some money, so God willing, we will be all right. …

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