Afghan refugee crisis brewing

Home to 3 million refugees, Iran and Pakistan are intensifying efforts to send them home. Experts say it will be 'disastrous' for Afghanistan.

A severe crisis threatening Afghanistan is unfolding just over its borders.

In the past three weeks, Iran has forcefully deported 85,000 Afghan refugees back over Afghanistan's southern and southeastern borders, where fighting between the Taliban and coalition forces is escalating. And in neighboring Pakistan, security forces yesterday killed four Afghan refugees during an eviction drive at a camp in Balochistan, according to reports from Agence France Presse (AFP) and other news outlets.

The forceful evictions of the refugees, who have lived in Iran and Pakistan for nearly three decades, are part of the two countries' larger plans to repatriate all Afghan refugees within a few years. Iran says it will send 1 million by next March. Pakistan, according to local media reports, plans to use force and economic sanctions to compel thousands of Afghans to leave camps that many call home.

On Saturday, Afghanistan's parliament, outraged by Iran's expulsions, ousted the Aghan foreign minister, Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, citing his gross mishandling of the situation. Mr. Spanta's dismissal followed Repatriation and Refugee Minister Mohammad Akbar Akbar's ouster by lawmakers last Thursday. Iran responded by agreeing to slow the rate of deportations, AFP reported.

The flare-ups heighten international concerns that both Iran and Pakistan have accelerated measures to purge their Afghan populations. With violence in Afghanistan at record levels and basic services already overwhelmed, their moves could be catastrophic for the region, analysts say.

"Certainly having very large numbers of Afghans return all of a sudden, especially to the south, would be disastrous," says Paul Fishstein, the director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul.

Almost 30 years after Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, Pakistan is still home to more than 2 million registered refugees and Iran to more than 900,000. As many as 1 million more Afghans live in Iran as illegal immigrants.

Iran, Pakistan blame refugees for violence

As terrorism flares in Iran and Pakistan, both governments have blamed Afghans for the violence and intensified efforts to send them home.

The Iranian government says that those deported were all illegal immigrants, according to Iranian TV reports, and that registered Afghans can stay.

But international agencies are concerned. "Sending so many people home will overwhelm the government … simply because Afghanistan has so little absorption capacity," says Vivian Tan, a regional spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), speaking from Tehran. "We do believe it should be done in a more humane way."

Iran says it would like all Afghans to leave eventually, though it hasn't specified a timetable.

Developments in Pakistan are also a cause for concern. Quoting a local police officer's account, AFP reported on Wednesday that four Afghan refugees were killed when a team of Pakistani paramilitary troops stormed the Jungle Pir Alizai refugee camp in Balochistan, seeking to evict inhabitants.

Four camps in Pakistan, which together hold 230,000 refugees, are scheduled to be closed by 2009, the first two beginning this summer.

Inhabitants are supposed to have a choice: either go home or be shifted to other camps, which authorities insist are adequate for their needs. But during a high-level meeting this week, members of the Pakistani government reportedly considered using force to expel camp inhabitants, according to Pakistani newspapers. In some areas, economic sanctions – including bans on renting to Afghans – have already been promulgated to force refugees to other areas.

"The message is, we are closing the camps and you have to go home," says Aimal Khan, of the Islamabad think tank, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI).

Abdur Rauf Khan, chief commissioner of Afghan refugees in Islamabad, has denied that Pakistan will use force. Responding Wednesday to claims that four Afghan refugees were killed by Pakistani security services in Balochistan, he said that while not in a position to confirm or deny the reports, "I have it on the authority of my secretary that no such incident took place."

Pakistan's government insists it has worked closely with UNHCR and Afghanistan to devise the terms for repatriation. Afghanistan says it will certainly support the efforts of Afghan refugees to return, but only so long as it is voluntary.

A May UNHCR report, along with other studies, suggests that returnees would likely congregate in a few already overburdened Afghan cities like Kabul, further straining housing stocks, water, and electricity supplies.

Expelled refugees could turn to extremism

While closing camps and deporting undocumented refugees may help in the short term, it will create regional problems down the line, observers say. "There will be some kind of resistance. And the situation in Afghanistan is not that ideal for the refugees to go back," says Mr. Khan of SDPI.

According to the May UNHCR report, 82 percent of Pakistan's refugees do not want to go home. Some three-quarters are below the age of 28, and nearly as many have no formal education – a combination that could make them susceptible to extremism. "You just have uprooted people who are [angry] and who may be more susceptible to creating mischief," says Mr. Fishstein in Kabul.

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