In one of the shabby houses along the dusty streets of Gulshar, an Afghan settlement on the outskirts of Mash'had in northern Iran, sits 13-year-old Maryam Gholami. She describes her life as an illegal refugee from Afghanistan: "I clean wool from eight in the morning until noon. Then I go to school until 4:30. I study in the evenings after helping my mother around the house." Though Maryam's hands are as dry as sandpaper from her 20-cents-a-pound work, her almond eyes sparkle when she talks about her A grades. Her school is for Afghan children who cannot attend Iranian public schools because they lack proper documentation. In Maryam's native Afghanistan—just across the Iranian border—women and girls are banned from working or pursuing an education by the ruling Taliban, an extremist Muslim militia. Maryam hopes to be a doctor when she grows up, a dream that may just be possible if she is allowed to remain in her adopted home.
For more than two decades, Afghan women have been educating themselves and their daughters in the Islamic republic of Iran, after having fled war in their own country. They have found some solace in Iran's relatively progressive attitudes toward women, who are allowed to work, pursue an education, and sport a head scarf rather than a burqa, the head-to-toe covering required by the Taliban. Iran has also provided legal refugees with free education and basic health care—all with little help from the international community. But the refugees' welcome is wearing thin, especially now that Taliban supporters, posing as refugees, have infiltrated Iran to sell heroin on the illegal market. This has spurred a repatriation effort that puts the hopes of refugees like Maryam in jeopardy.
In 1999 alone, some 100,000 Afghans were expelled from Iran. Last February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in to quell the anti-refugee sentiment. The agency hammered out a plan for voluntary repatriation with the Iranian government. The plan, which was put into effect in April, was based on a belief that parts of Afghanistan are now safe. And then, in November, Iran, Tajikistan, and Pakistan closed their borders to refugees fleeing Afghanistan.
"The situation is horrendous," says Sima Wali, founder of the human rights group Refugee Women in Development, based in Washington, D.C. "They are dumping masses of refugees back into a country where there is ongoing fighting and a severe drought. This is a violation of the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees." Iran is a signatory to this convention, which forbids the return of refugees whose lives or freedom may be threatened. Salvatore Lombardo, a senior officer with UNHCR, denies that the agency is endangering Afghans, who comprise the world's largest refugee population. "There are a large number of refugees in Iran and Pakistan who want to return to Afghanistan," he says. "We are not promoting their return—but if they want to go back, we facilitate their journey." Lombardo says UNHCR runs eight screening centers as part of a joint program with the Iranian government to assess the claims of those who are having second thoughts about returning.
"What the U.N. terms 'voluntary' has in fact very little to do with voluntary return," says Wali. "Afghans are now facing such horrific conditions in Iran that they have no choice but to return." Shortly after Iran and the UNHCR signed the joint repatriation agreement, Amnesty International reported mass arrests of Afghans—sometimes entire families—by the Iranian police. "We have reports that a number of refugees have felt a significant pressure from Iranian authorities to return," says Alistair Hodgett, media director of Amnesty International. "And they have not been given an accurate picture of what to expect upon their return." François Calas, head of Doctors Without Borders in Iran, says that many women who are seven or eight months pregnant are also among those return