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This news release was updated to add relevant new information from Afghan government sources.

(Kabul) – Iranian authorities should shelve plans to expel hundreds of thousands of Afghans after their visas were set to expire on September 6, 2013, Human Rights Watch said today. Iran should not expel any Afghan refugee until a system is in place that allows asylum seekers to have their asylum claims considered fairly and to challenge any order to deport them.

The September 6 deadline passed without any Iranian government statement about whether and how it may carry out the deportations. Prior to September 6, the Afghan government asked the Iranian government to extend the deadline, sending a delegation to Tehran for this purpose, Afghan government sources told Human Rights Watch. The Afghan government is still awaiting a response to this request. Security conditions in Afghanistan coupled with the absence of a fair asylum process in Iran means that any mass deportation of Afghans would amount to a serious violation of international law. The Afghan government had estimated that 300,000 Afghan visa holders would be required to leave Iran by September 6 if no extension is granted. Hundreds of thousands more undocumented Afghans could ultimately be affected.

“Afghans in Iran are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.” Regardless of whether the September 6 deadline will be extended or not, the Iranian government seems eager to abruptly push them back across the border at a time when security conditions in Afghanistan are increasingly uncertain and dangerous.”

At a minimum, the Iranian government should fairly consider the claims of anyone facing deportation who says they will be harmed upon their return, Human Rights Watch said.

On August 24, Iran’s semi-official Mehr News Agency reported that all undocumented Afghans and those holding temporary visas under a government program to register undocumented foreigners should leave Iran before their visas expire on September 6 or face imprisonment, fines, and ultimately expulsion. An Iranian government website confirmed this but said that Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tehran had asked Iran to extend the visas beyond September 6. Afghan government sources say this request has yet to receive a response. Iranian government officials have not publicly confirmed whether the September 6 deadline has been suspended or extended.

If no visa extension is granted, hundreds of thousands of Afghans will be obliged to leave Iran this week. Only around 800,000 of the 3 million Afghans estimated to live in Iran have legal status as refugees. Another 400,000 to 600,000 Afghans hold temporary visas, while others are undocumented. Many are migrant workers.

From 2010 to June 2012, the Iranian government operated a Comprehensive Regularization Plan (CRP) that offered undocumented Afghans in Iran an opportunity to register officially and apply for temporary visas, passports, and work permits with the possibility, but not the guarantee, that these would be extended. The process required Afghan men without families to return to Afghanistan to apply for the passports and visas, while families could do so without leaving Iran. The Iranian authorities have also encouraged Afghans who have legal status as refugees to obtain Afghan passports and exchange refugee status for Iranian residential visas, although their visas were not set to expire on September 6 and they were not under immediate threat of deportation.

According to Mehr and other sources, the September 6 deadline applied to all Afghans who registered under the CRP and whose visas were set to expire on or before that date. Iranian government officials had previously announced that any undocumented Afghan found to have remained in Iran beyond the September 6 deadline could face imprisonment and be required to pay a 30,000 toman fine (approximately US$12) for each day that they overstay.

The Iranian government has taken various steps to encourage or force Afghans to leave Iran since the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan 12 years ago. Although Iran has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, the authorities have failed to provide any system to allow Afghans facing deportation to register asylum claims or contest their deportation on grounds that they will face persecution if they are returned to Afghanistan. This failure has become critical as security conditions in Afghanistan worsen ahead of the planned withdrawal of all international combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

If Iran imposes a deadline for individuals who obtained temporary visas under the CRP, it may push hundreds of thousands of Afghans back across its eastern border into Afghanistan as rights and security conditions in that country deteriorate further. UNHCR, the United Nations (UN) refugee agency, is already warning of increased conflict between government forces and armed groups in Afghanistan as international troops draw down and hand control to Afghan forces.

UNHCR’s “Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Afghanistan,” issued in August 2013, also point to the risks that Afghan returnees face due to “endemic corruption, difficulties in establishing and maintaining governmental authority, continuing concerns about weaknesses in the rule of law and an underperforming judicial system, widespread human rights violations, and a general climate of impunity.”

The Guidelines state that at least 40 percent of more than 5.8 million Afghan refugees who returned to Afghanistan since 2002 were unable to “reintegrate into their home communities, resulting in significant secondary displacement, mostly to urban areas.” Up to 60 percent of returnees have experienced difficulties “in rebuilding their lives” in Afghanistan, UNHCR says, while both returning refugees and those displaced internally face problems due to insecurity in their home areas, loss of livelihoods, lack of access to health care and education, and difficulties in reclaiming land and property.

Based partly on the UNHCR guidelines, the Pakistan government’s Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development recently concluded that, “Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan should see their legal permission to stay in Pakistan extended until 31st December 2015.” Pakistan has 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees and an unknown number of undocumented Afghans.

Human Rights Watch has previously expressed concern about attempts by authorities in both Iran and Pakistan to push back Afghans entering their countries from Afghanistan without establishing a transparent asylum system. Such a system is needed to ensure compliance with Iran’s and Pakistan’s international legal obligations not to refoule – or unlawfully return –refugees to a place where they would face persecution or other serious human rights violations.

In addition to being denied any means to register asylum claims, Afghans face serious rights abuses during their deportation by Iranian security forces. A Human Rights Watch report scheduled for release later this year will document how Iranian forces physically abuse Afghan deportees, detain them in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, force them to pay for their own transportation and accommodation in deportation camps, or to undergo forced labor if they cannot pay, and separate families.

“Afghans make up the world’s largest refugee population and people are leaving the country in droves as security conditions there continue to deteriorate,” Stork said. “Countries around the world, including Iran, have a duty to hear and fairly consider the cases of Afghans who fear returning home.” 

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