(London) - Iran should immediately halt the mass deportations of Afghan nationals and investigate allegations that its authorities have abused numerous deportees, Human Rights Watch said today. Iran should also ensure that Afghans faced with deportation are given the individual opportunity to seek protection based on conditions in Afghanistan that would threaten their lives or freedom, Human Rights Watch said.

Since late April, the Iranian government has forcibly deported back to Afghanistan nearly 100,000 registered and unregistered Afghans living and working in Iran. The Iranian government says the mass deportation is aimed at reducing the number of illegal immigrants in the country, but Iranian officials have also expelled Afghans who have been registered with the authorities, many of whom have been regarded as refugees (panahandegan) for many years. Iran announced in 2006 that it would “voluntarily repatriate” all of the more than 1 million Afghans remaining in Iran by March 2008, saying that none of those people are refugees.

“Iran can deport people who are there illegally, but it has to give them the chance to contest their deportation or to seek asylum,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s against international law to expel people arbitrarily based on their national origin.”

In February 2007, the Iranian government told the Afghan government and the United Nations that it intended to regularize foreign migrants on its soil, and that it would deport en masse undocumented Afghans starting on April 21, 2007. On April 23, 2007, the Iranian authorities made good on their announcement when they deported more than 4,000 Afghans through border crossings with western Afghanistan. However, the Iranian authorities did not give advance notice to many of the nearly 100,000 Afghans deported in the past 50 days that they would be expelled from Iran.

“The failure of the Afghan government and the United Nations to heed Iran’s warnings has added to the suffering of thousands of Afghans,” said Adams. “Many of those expelled are living in the desert, short of food, water and shelter. The Iranians, the Afghan government and the UN should all be ashamed of themselves.”

Many of the deported Afghans were separated from their families and had little time to collect their possessions or wages. According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), more than 40 percent of the deportees, most of them children, were separated from their families after their apprehension.

Nearly all of the recently returned Afghans were forced by the Iranian authorities to pay for their transportation to the Afghan border, sometimes at extraordinary cost.

According to the AIHRC, nearly 3,000 Afghan deportees said Iranian authorities beat them before reaching Afghanistan. The AIHRC also reported that Iranian authorities are responsible for the deaths of at least six Afghans. The Iranian police killed one man when they threw him out of a window while apprehending him. Five other Afghans died in Afghan hospitals after being deported as a result of injuries inflicted by Iranian police.

According to accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch, the Iranian authorities are transferring thousands of Afghans to three holding facilities near the Iranian-Afghan border before deporting them to Afghanistan. The three facilities known as Askarabad, Sang-e Safid, and Tal-e Seeya, which is also known as the “Black Dungeon,” are all veritable prisons. Recent deportees have told Human Rights Watch that the Iranian authorities routinely beat Afghans in these locations and force them to pay for their own food and water. According the AIHRC, Afghans spend between one and 19 days in these facilities before the authorities deport them back to Afghanistan.

Matiullah, who was held in Sang-e Safid for five days, told Human Rights Watch: “When I arrived at Sang-e Safid, I saw 40 Afghans chained together inside the prison. They were sitting on the ground with their hands and ankles shackled. One of the men told me that they had been shackled together in Shiraz and put in a small bus and brought to Sang-e Safid. They were shackled together all the way from Shiraz and could not use the toilet. When I saw them, I thought I was in Guantanamo Bay.”

Not all of the Afghans that went through these facilities were unregistered. For example, Mehdi, an 18-year-old Afghan, and his family were registered and legally residing in Iran. In late April, Mehdi and his family were voluntarily returning to Afghanistan when the Iranian authorities apprehended them.

“The police stopped our bus outside of Tehran; they were looking for illegal Afghans,” Mehdi told Human Rights Watch. “When they came to me, they took me from my family and arrested me. I showed them my registration paper but they told me they did not care. They said they were going to take me to Sang-e Safid prison and punish me to make sure that I would never come back to Iran. I was born there; Tehran was my home.”

Human Rights Watch called on Iran to immediately investigate abuses in these facilities and to hold to account those responsible for violating the rights of Afghans in the course of apprehension, detention and deportation. The government should ensure that repatriation efforts do not result in separation of families, especially separation of children from their parents. In addition, advance notice of intent to deport should be given to the deportees to enable them to put their affairs in order.

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that Afghans in need of international protection be given the opportunity to seek it in Iran. This includes both long-term Afghan residents registered by the authorities as well as newer arrivals who may have asylum claims but who have not been allowed to register at all. In all cases, Iran should strictly abide by its obligations as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention not to return any person whose life or freedom would be threatened in Afghanistan.

Human Rights Watch also urgently called on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assess whether conditions inside Afghanistan, including the prevalence of generalized violence and lack of access for humanitarian assistance and human rights monitoring, would preclude the return of Afghans in conditions of safety and dignity with full respect for their human rights, including their economic, social and cultural rights. In this context, Human Rights Watch notes a June 11, 2007 UNHCR press statement, which refers to “worsening security and humanitarian access in parts of Afghanistan.” Also, on June 12, the International Committee of the Red Cross director of operations said, “There’s an intensification of the fighting [in Afghanistan], it has spread to new parts of the country, so it’s no longer confined to the south.”

Human Rights Watch called upon the UNHCR to refrain from any cooperation in the government’s repatriation program if Afghan nationals in Iran – whether registered or unregistered – are not given the opportunity to make asylum claims. Finally, Human Rights Watch called upon the UNHCR to monitor conditions in the Askarabad, Sang-e Safid, and Tal-e Seeya facilities, to see if potential refugees there are being coerced to return to unsafe conditions, and to hear potential asylum claims.