TEHRAN, Iran - Iran has announced that it will require tens of thousands of refugees to return to Afghanistan as of Aug. 27, angering the United Nations refugee agency and human rights groups.
The government plans to expel those who have not taken part in a census of immigrants that began a year ago.
The government, faced with a huge influx of immigrants and finding them an economic burden, has already refused to register children of illegal immigrants at schools and has started fining employers who hire Afghans who do not have the proper documents. Those who have registered for the census are still expected to return home eventually.
Close to 2.6 million Afghans took part in the immigrant census. But the Iranian government contends that there are at least an additional 250,000 who have refused to take part in the program and must leave the country at the end of the month. Most fled into Iran as a result of fighting and famine in Afghanistan, and the numbers increased during the American-led campaign to oust the Taliban last year. Last month, Iran set an Aug. 11 deadline for unregistered refugees to leave and then extended it to Aug. 27. After that date, they are subject to arrest and deportation.
On Tuesday, Ahmad Hosseini, chief of the country's immigration agency, said that Iran considered the government in Afghanistan responsible for the immigrants. "The displaced Afghans are considered immigrants, not refugees, and so they should return to the home country," he said.
Iran's decision has angered human rights groups as well as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, whose office says it has a right to review the cases of those Iran wants to expel, based on an agreement it signed with Iran.
The agreement was signed in Geneva in April by Iran and Afghanistan and by the refugee agency. It lays down the main legal and operational framework for the voluntary return of Afghan refugees in Iran.
The refugee agency contends that there could be people entitled to remain as refugees among those forced to return and that Iran's plan violates its commitments as a member of the U.N. Refugee Convention.
Physicians for Human Rights, based in Boston, also condemned Iran's move and said that not allowing Afghan children to go to school would be in violation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Iran has ratified.
The refugee agency's spokesman in Kabul, Maki Shinohara, told the Associated Press that the pressure on the immigrants from Iran's government has already prompted a large influx of Afghans back into Afghanistan and that the agency had insufficient tents to shelter even those who have returned already.
Afghans have become a burden on Iran's stagnant economy, which has an official unemployment rate of 14 percent.