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Iran relents on Afghan refugees

By Pam O'Toole

Several hundred Afghans have been sent home TEHRAN, Iran, March 16, 2000 (BBC) Officials from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees say Iran has pledged to end the recent wave of forcible deportations of Afghans.

The move comes after two days of talks between UNHCR and Iranian officials.

The refugee agency lodged a protest with Tehran, following reports that hundreds of Afghan nationals had been forcibly deported over the past week.

The wave of deportations struck fear into the hearts of Tehran's large Afghan population and created concern among human rights organisations.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards were said to have indiscriminately rounded up Afghan nationals in parts of the capital and moved them to detention centres before forcing them back across the Afghan border.

Some sources said several hundred people had been returned to Afghanistan in this way; others said the number could be in the thousands.

UNHCR said some of the deportees could have been genuine refugees in need of international protection.

Afghan opposition leaders based in Tehran also called for an end to the forced returns.

Voluntary scheme

UNHCR officials say the Iranian authorities have now pledged to end the deportations and concentrate instead on a new UN-backed scheme for voluntary repatriation, due to start next month.

The scheme, agreed in February, was supported by the UN in the hope it would put a stop to the rising number of indiscriminate and forced deportations of Afghans from Iran.

Tehran has argued for years that it can no longer afford to host the 1.4 million Afghans on its territory.

It has been pushing particularly for the return of up to 500,000 it says are either in the country illegally or without documents.

The voluntary repatriation scheme will give undocumented Afghans six months to register to return home, but also allows those who believe they would be at risk in Afghanistan to apply to remain in Iran.

Iran bows to complaints over Afghan refugee deportations

TEHRAN, Iran, March 16, 2000 (AFP) - Iran told representatives of refugee organisations Thursday it would concentrate on voluntary repatriation of Afghans living in the country, implying that a wave of deportations is over, a source with one of the organisations told AFP.

"Iran considers it a priority to implement the agreement concluded in February" with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the source said.

"There was an understanding on this issue between the Iranian authorities and humanitarian groups," the source added. "This indicates that the mass expulsions have ended."

On February 22, the UNHCR said it had agreed with Tehran to work toward the voluntary repatriation of the 1.4 million Afghan refugees the agency calculates are living in Iran. Tehran puts the figure at two million.

Those who did not have proper papers would be given six months to register their presence and either ask to be sent home or submit a request for permission to stay in Iran.

However witnesses said that last Thursday police had begun a series of round-ups of Afghans in parts of Tehran, with several hundreds, possibly thousands of people sent to a camp at Askarabad, near the capital.

Workers, refugees and those without proper identity papers were picked up indiscriminately. Police even stopped buses to carry out spot-checks, said one witness.

From the camp they were put in buses and sent off to southeast Iran, before being pushed over the border into areas of western Afghanistan not under the control of the Taliban militia, whose regime is unrecognised by Tehran.

UNHCR spokesman Jacques Franquin said in Geneva Tuesday he could not say exactly how many refugees had been deported. Those concerned "do not live in camps but amongst the Iranian people, and so are not directly looked after by the UNHCR," he said.