Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

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Human Rights Watch

Afghan Refugees Mistreated in Exile, but Afraid to Go Home

Human Rights Watch
February 26, 2002
Press Release

(New York) -- With repatriation from Pakistan and Iran slated to begin this week, many Afghan refugees are afraid to return to Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said.

In the 45-page report, Human Rights Watch called for implementing any repatriation program with extreme caution while conditions in Afghanistan remain unsafe, and for ending harassment and violence against refugees in Iran and Pakistan. "While many Afghan refugees want to go home, there are others who are terrified of returning at this time," said Rachael Reilly, Refugee Policy Director at Human Rights Watch. "Ethnically motivated attacks, lawlessness, and fighting between rival warlords remain rampant in some areas."

The Human Rights Watch report, "Closed Door Policy: Afghan Refugees in Pakistan and Iran," cautions against a hasty repatriation of Afghan refugees while conditions in Afghanistan remain unstable. Human Rights Watch interviewed many refugees, including members of various ethnic groups, and women and girls, who fear continuing human rights abuses inside Afghanistan.

The decades long Afghan refugee emergency did not end with the fall of the Taliban. There remain three and a half million refugees in Pakistan and Iran, the vast majority of whom arrived before the current armed conflict. Although one hundred forty thousand Afghans went home from Pakistan and Iran in the past six weeks, fifty thousand new refugees fled Afghanistan to Pakistan during the same time period.

Refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Pakistan described the human toll caused by that government's treatment of the refugee population: With borders closed, most refugees had to resort to dangerous and unofficial routes into Pakistan. Refugees were beaten at unofficial checkpoints when they could not afford to pay extortionate bribes. At official crossing points, families were beaten back, or languished in squalor without food, water or latrines-hoping to be let in. Once inside Pakistan, refugees were harassed and imprisoned because they lacked identity documents. They also endured beatings by Pakistani police when queuing for food in camps. "Many Afghan refugees are in a no-win situation. They have endured violence in Afghanistan, and many fear going home. But they also live with harassment and violence in Pakistan and Iran," said Reilly.

Human Rights Watch called on donor governments to provide adequate funding to the Afghan Interim Authority's Ministry for the Return of Refugees, and for the voluntary return of refugees under conditions of safety and with full respect for their human rights. The January 2002 donor conference in Japan highlighted the need for humanitarian assistance to returning refugees, but the security of returnees cannot be guaranteed under current conditions.

A first step towards ensuring returnees' security would be the expansion of the mandate and presence of the International Security Force beyond Kabul. In addition, the governments of Pakistan and Iran as well as UNHCR must ensure that Afghan refugees have access to full and objective information about conditions inside Afghanistan before deciding whether or not to return. Refugees should not be forced to return prematurely because of insecurity or lack of assistance in neighboring countries.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch urged the governments of Pakistan and Iran to identify those refugees who continue to be in need of protection, to provide them with documentation and a regularized legal status, and to end ongoing abuses of the rights of refugees in both countries.