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Iran Forcibly Deports 100,000 Afghans

By ALISA TANG
The Associated Press
Friday, June 15, 2007; 3:55 AM

AFGHANISTAN-IRAN BORDER -- Dumped at this frontier outpost alongside hundreds of weary Afghan laborers, Khalil Jalil stepped out of Iran and back into Afghanistan only days after he said Iranian authorities beat him, threw him in the trunk of a car and locked him in a detention center.

The 23-year-old's violent ejection is part of a broad Iranian crackdown on illegal Afghan migrants that has pushed more than 100,000 deportees across the border the past two months, leaving hundreds of Afghan families stranded without shelter and straining the impoverished country's resources.

Like Jalil, many of the deportees come with stories of abuse: Men beaten so badly that their legs and collarbones were broken, and legal refugees whose government-issued cards were cut into pieces by police.

Iran denies the allegations of abuse and says it has forced laborers back home because the 1.5 million undocumented Afghan migrants are an enormous burden on its economy.

As a result, about 2,000 Afghans a day are being sent out of Iran, where many sought better jobs or a stable home outside war-torn Afghanistan. Most are men, but entire families are being kicked out as well.

At the Islam Qala border crossing, about 75 miles west of the Afghan city of Herat, 1,200 people flow back into Afghanistan a day. Some carry suitcases, but several wear their work uniforms and are penniless, not having had a chance to collect their salaries or savings.

One man had only crumbling bits of stale bread, a small bottle of water and another of soda tied up in a tattered black scarf.

Iran has sent undocumented Afghans home every year and announced these deportations in advance. But the numbers have been staggering, with more than 100,000 deported the past two months compared with 146,387 deported in all of 2006, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said.

Jalil entered Afghanistan wearing a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, the only possessions he could grab after two men in army uniforms and two in plainclothes woke him up with kicks and punches.

"They yelled at us, 'Get out, Afghan trash!'" Jalil said, describing how he was handcuffed to another laborer and thrown in the trunk of a green sedan.

He had lived in Iran for seven years, and his parents and siblings were still there. They had entered with passports and visas but stayed on after their documents expired.

Like many interviewed here, Jalil said he paid his own $11 bus fare to be deported. Others said they bribed authorities to be deported immediately rather than being locked up in filthy, overcrowded detention centers.

"It is not how humans treat other humans. The rooms were full, so they put us in the bathrooms," said Nabiullah Jamshidy, 28, who had been deported after living in Iran for 14 years.

Noor Ahmad Mohammadi, who performs medical checkups at the border, said that in the past month he has seen about seven deportees severely beaten, with broken collarbones, legs, arms and stitches on their faces.

Iranian authorities "are behaving very badly with the deportees," said Naik Mohammad Azamy, head of the UNHCR office in Islam Qala. "Maltreatment is common, and abuses for all of them."

Iran's ambassador to Afghanistan dismissed the allegations as "propaganda and rumors," but said the government would respond to any documented claims.

"We believe there are huge rumors inside Afghanistan because many Afghan refugees don't want to return to their country. They mention many things, but most of them are not reality," Ambassador Mohammad R. Bahrami said.

About 1.5 million illegal migrants live in Iran on top of 950,000 registered Afghan refugees, he said. Some go legally and carry on with their lives after their passports expire, while others pay to be smuggled by human traffickers.

The enormous number of Afghan refugees and undocumented migrants takes a huge chunk out of Iran's subsidized health care and basic infrastructure, Bahrami said.

Iran originally had planned to deport 5,000 illegal migrants per day but scaled that back at Afghan President Hamid Karzai's request. Bahrami said deportations would continue until a "suitable conclusion to our project."

Once back in Afghanistan, deportees receive assistance from U.N. agencies and aid organizations, and move on to larger cities or home. But many have been living in Iran for decades and have nowhere to go.

Hundreds of Afghans, including several families, are living "in the open air" without shelter, UNHCR said.

The deportations have infuriated lawmakers, who last month voted to oust the Repatriation and Refugee Minister Mohammad Akbar Akbar for mishandling the issue.

U.N. and Afghan officials have found that some refugees with documents issued by the Iranian government have suffered the same ordeals as the illegal migrants.

Ahmad, an 18-year-old who was born in Iran and had never set foot in Afghanistan, had heard that illegal migrants were being violently rounded up and deported, but his pink government-issued refugee card meant he was legal.

At a traffic roundabout where day laborers gather, a man in blue jeans and a white button-down shirt offered Ahmad a job making bricks at $1 for 200 bricks. The man led him to a red minibus, and as Ahmad looked at the other Afghans in the vehicle he realized he had been caught.

He was going to show the Iranian police his refugee card, but he said he saw police kicking several detainees and cutting their cards into pieces. He hid his own under his shirt.

At Islam Qala, an Iranian policeman told deportees that anyone with a refugee card would be released, but Ahmad was too scared his would be destroyed.

He crossed the border and stepped into Afghanistan for the first time ever. The UNHCR, which is helping to reunite Ahmad with his family in Tehran, asked that he only be identified by his first name so as not to jeopardize his case.

"I don't want anything from the Iran government. I just want them to send my mother, brother and sisters here to Afghanistan," said Ahmad, whose father died seven years ago. "Even if we die of hunger here, it would be better than me being alone and them being there without me. I'm the head of the family."

© 2007 The Associated Press