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Seeking a Safe Haven

Having fled Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, 29 refugees are seeking sanctuary in Afghanistan.
By Danish Karokhel

After years of watching its own citizens flee the country, Afghanistan finds itself with 29 foreign nationals - from Iran, Iraq and Pakistan - fighting for the right to asylum here.

In protest at their cases being rejected, and under threat of United Nations-provided accommodation being taken away, most of that number are now staging a series of short hunger strikes.

Two members of the group even went so far as to sew their mouths shut - a move reminiscent of protests staged by Afghan refugees seeking asylum in Australia.

One member of the group, an Iranian man in his 20s whose name is being withheld for his own protection, told IWPR that he fled to Afghanistan from his home country about six months ago.

He said that he had had to leave after being falsely jailed on theft charges following political demonstrations. The young man expressed anger at what he said had been an unfeeling attitude by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR. “Their actions are totally against human rights,” he said.

Another woman from Iran claimed that the situation had become so desperate that she had already attempted suicide. She threatened to try again and next time, she said, she might be joined by her husband and children.

She said her family had been forced to flee Iran after her husband had published a controversial book. “We entered Afghanistan paying a trafficker to lead us through the mountains,” she said. “We went to the Foreign Ministry of Afghanistan and we were introduced to UNHCR but they did not pay us attention.”

The Iranian embassy in Kabul refused to comment on the matter.

The group as a whole has charged that a local UN worker is biased against their cases and asked that she be removed. They are also demanding that UNHCR continue to provide them with housing and that their appeals for asylum be reconsidered.

Nadir Farhad, a public information assistant at UNHCR, said that while his organisation has verified the cases of two asylum-seekers from Iraq, most of the others had failed to meet internationally accepted standards to be granted refugee status.

Farhad denied that the group has been mistreated by his agency. He said that they had been provided with food, accommodation and living expenses while their cases were being examined.

While the housing was now being withdrawn, he said that UNHCR would continue to provide for them. Farhad also refuted charges of bias and said that no decision was taken by one individual alone and the asylum seekers now had to the right to appeal.

The Afghan government, which is currently coping with millions of its own citizens returning from abroad, appears to be trying to steer clear of the matter.

Omar Samad, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, said that while "from the point of view of humanitarianism we feel responsibility", the government had no legal duty towards the asylum seekers as it was not party to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Some, however, said the government has a moral obligation to get involved in the case.

Lal Gul, the chairman of the Afghan Commission for Human Rights, noted that Pakistan is also not a signatory to the convention but has taken in millions of Afghans over the years.

Since the fall of the Taleban, Lal Gul estimates that about 100 people had sought asylum in Afghanistan. While some see the country as merely a stop on their way to a more prosperous country, others have decided to settle here.

Lal Gul said his commission was monitoring the situation and believed that it was not safe for any of the individuals to return to their home countries. For now, his organisation was appealing for funds to provide housing for those seeking asylum. “In this cold weather, where else can they go?” he asked.

Danish Karokhel is an IWPR local editor/trainer in Kabul. Lailuma Saded is an independent journalist in Kabul.

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