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Iran: Tehran Seeks To Keep Refugee Aid Outside Its Borders

Facing a possible influx of new Afghan refugees, Iran is keeping its border closed and insisting international assistance be provided on the Afghan side of the frontier. It is also deporting any Afghan refugees who manage to cross clandestinely. RFE/RL correspondents Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin look at how Tehran is responding to the latest humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

Prague 11 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Relief-agency officials report that only small numbers of refugees have arrived on Iran's border amid the ongoing U.S. and British air strikes on targets in Afghanistan.

Yuness Ani, the director of Iran's Red Crescent society in the northeastern city of Mashhad, told "The New York Times" on 9 October that he had not seen a big increase in Afghan refugees since the strikes began on 7 October.

Nonetheless, Iran has taken strict measures to deal with any possible influx.

Tehran posted 30,000 extra police and troops along its border with Afghanistan in late September to seal it off against refugees and catch those who try to enter clandestinely. The measures are meant to stem a tide of up to 400,000 refugees that U.N. officials have predicted could flee to Iran during U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.

At the same time, Tehran has set up camps on the Afghan side of the border -- where it says it plans to keep the vast majority of any refugees -- and has pledged to cooperate with international aid agencies. U.N. emergency-relief coordinator Kenzo Oshima, who recently visited Iran, told reporters in New York on 8 October that Iran plans five camps on the Afghan side of the border and five camps inside Iran. The camps are scattered along the entire length of the Iran-Afghan border.

"There are plans to establish camps in the border areas, including inside Afghanistan. There are a certain number of difficulties, of course, I was told -- a major one being water, what to do with water, how to supply water, because this area's terrain is basically very arid," said Oshima.

A top U.N. representative in Iran said on 9 October that the agency shares Iran's goal of making aid to refugees available outside its border. Marius Fortman of the World Food Program said, "Our objective is to show Afghans they do not need to come to food, and food is coming to them."

Tehran has set up the camps on the Afghan side of its border with the agreement of the Taliban, which controls areas of Afghanistan abutting Iran. Red Crescent officials in Iran say they also obtained permission for the camps from the ousted but internationally recognized Afghan government of President Burhaneddin Rabbani.

News agencies report that a group of Afghan refugees arrived three days ago at a new camp across the border from the Iranian city of Zabol. The official Iranian news agency, IRNA, quoted an unidentified Afghan source as saying some of the arriving refugees had been wounded in the U.S.-led strikes and were being treated at a field hospital in the camp. The report could not be independently confirmed.

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Oshima praised the governments of both Iran and Pakistan for being "very cooperative" in helping relief groups cope with the Afghan crisis.

"What we have been doing is to increase preparedness for any contingencies that [a refugee crisis] might happen. The governments of Pakistan and Iran have been very cooperative in this preparedness action."

But if Tehran has sought to be cooperative over Afghan refugees, it also has drawn very clear limits as to how much shelter it is willing to give them upon its own soil.

Officials have said the country will not allow the current crisis to add to an existing Afghan refugee population in Iran, which is variously estimated at between 1.5 million and 2 million.

That population is mostly the legacy of the 10-year Soviet-Afghan war, during which Iran maintained an open-door policy for refugees. Other refugees have arrived over the past decade as Afghanistan has suffered from ongoing factional fighting and severe drought.

In recent years, Iran has stepped up efforts to repatriate Afghan refugees, whom many accuse of taking Iranian jobs and adding to high unemployment. Afghan refugees and their supporters reject those charges, saying the Afghans mostly find jobs as low-paid laborers in the construction and agricultural sectors and perform work that others are reluctant to do.

The Iranian daily "Entekhab" recently quoted Ali Zafarzadeh, an MP from Mashhad, as saying that an "influx of Afghan refugees will create poverty, unemployment and malnutrition. [We] are already suffering from smuggling and narcotics, addiction, and high crime rates in our border cities, which has been caused by Afghan refugees."

A spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, told Reuters on 9 October that prior to the 11 September attacks, an average of 4,000 Afghan refugees per week were returning home. The spokesman said that since the attacks and the West's retaliatory strikes, the number has dropped to some 2,000 a week. Many of those now returning to Afghanistan are said to be checking on family members amid the crisis.

Despite Iran's efforts to seal off its 900-kilometer border with Afghanistan -- with trenches, barbed wire, and electronic detection devices -- the frontier is porous. Much of the border runs through empty desert, and drug-trafficking and people-smuggling across it are widespread.

Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper reported in late September -- when the border was ordered closed -- that some 700 to 1,000 people filter across every day. The paper quoted a spokeswoman for the international aid group Doctors Without Borders as saying in Tehran that smugglers charge up to the equivalent of $180 per person. She said if refugees cannot find the money, the smugglers often keep a member of their family hostage until they pay.

As the Afghan crisis continues, Iran's leaders have said they oppose any U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan for fear it will further destabilize that country, increase U.S. influence there, and create more refugees.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 8 October sharply criticized the air strikes, saying, "We condemn the attack on the country and the people of Afghanistan." President Mohammad Khatami on the following day said that, "Thousands of people should not be killed under the pretext of fighting terrorism."

Tehran has called for a U.N.-led campaign against worldwide terrorism instead of one led by the U.S. It also has closed Iran's airspace to any U.S. military operations and vowed to intercept any planes that violate it.