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Afghanistan: Refugees Return Home From Iran

By J.M. Ledgard

Despite the prospects of security threats and a failing economy, Afghan refugees living in Iran are choosing to come home. RFE/RL correspondent J.M. Ledgard traveled to the no-man's land between Afghanistan and Iran to find out why.

Islam-Qala, Afghanistan; 22 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Islam-Qala feels like the end of the world. Sandstorms rip through this desert border region between Iran and Afghanistan. Traders huddle inside a walled bazaar, scarves draped across their faces for protection. Donkeys are pushed backwards by the wind, children stumble, black Shia veils of women billow and snap. In the middle of this brutal nowhere is what refugee agencies call "zero point," a few metal huts and a concrete field. This is where Afghan refugees returning home from Iran are set down and a new life begins.

There is some movement from Islam Qala into Iran. For 60,000 Iranian tomans (about $80) boys and men from impoverished Afghan villages are spirited into Iran. Another 90,000 tomans gets them all the way to Tehran, hidden under a load of sheep or wheat in the back of a truck. And in Tehran, these economic migrants dare to hope, anything is possible.

But few dreams come true for Afghans in Iran. Most of those returning home are weary and disillusioned. Rahima Qaim is an old woman. She doesn't know how old. She worked as a maid in Iran for many years. She is returning to Afghanistan now, she said, because she does not want to die in a foreign land. But the hope she feels at her homecoming is tempered by fear. "We wanted so badly to come back home when we were in Iran. But now that we are almost in Afghanistan, we don't know what will happen to us," she said.

Refugees are set down at zero point beside the hangars. They are registered by the International Catholic Migration Committee (ICMC), a humanitarian organization working alongside the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). The sick, elderly, and unaccompanied are set to one side. Others pass on across the hot concrete to lorries piled high with their possessions, which the UNHCR also pays to transport. The agency emphasizes return is a one-way ticket. Returnees are largely on their own once they reach their final destination.

"Today is a slow day," said Davor Gazivoda, a Croatian working for ICMC. "Eight hundred and eighty-five returnees by lunchtime. By September we expect 5,000 returnees a day."

It's good news for Iran. It is desperate to unload a chunk of the 2 million Afghan refugees still inside its borders and at least some of the 1 million or so undocumented Afghan workers -- like the men and boys passing through Islam-Qala -- who take up menial jobs for less than minimum wage. The return is not necessarily good news for Afghanistan, however. Ravaged by war and drought, the country is still struggling to absorb those who returned home from Pakistan in 2002.

It is becoming more difficult for Afghans to get by in Iran. Registration drives have isolated illiterate Afghans. Random police raids pick up and deport those without proper papers. Even those with correct papers are finding it harder to access medical care or place their children in schools. Parents in larger Afghan communities have taken to paying other Afghans to teach their children privately.

Many returnees bring back stories of exploitation and alienation in Iran. Men at zero point speak of scuffles and beatings.

"Iranians call us dogs, donkeys," said one. Another spoke of how the mullah in his local mosque in Iran berated Afghan refugees. "Just go home or we will force you to go," the mullah is reported to have said.

Abdul Qadi is 48-year-old mason from Herat. He claimed to have been swindled by his Iranian employers. "I spent my own money on a building project I was working on -- for materials, you know," he said. "But when I asked for the engineer to refund it he told me to go away."

Qadi continued: "It is always the same for Afghans. The Iranians are happy with us when we start working for them. But when they are going to give us our money they become angry and try to find ways to kick us out without paying us our salaries." A group of men gather around Qadi. They are angry. "Iran is no good," they say in chorus.

The prospects are not good for many of the returnees. Thirty-eight-year-old Sharaf Gul is heading for Kabul. She has nowhere else to go. It will not be easy there. The capital's ruined slums are already teeming with unskilled returnees. Jobs are scarce. So is water and safety. "I cannot read or write," Gul said. "My husband is uneducated also. We left because the Iranians would not register our children for school. They said it was because we did not have an identification card. I have to go to Kabul now. I do not have a house there. I will make a tent and I will live there."

Still, the returnees are united by a strong sense of patriotism and a longing for their homeland. Whether that will be enough to sustain them in a country lacking hospitals, schools, and jobs is another matter. An aid worker speaks of a boy returning from Iran who gave thanks to Allah for the dust storms at Islam-Qala because it was Afghan dust. After several days in a tent on the concrete site, however, he was cursing it.