In an attempt to find long-term solutions for the estimated 1.4 million unregistered Afghans living within its borders, Iran adopted a legalization scheme last year that paved the way for Afghans to enter Iran legally with work visas.
Observers say few Afghans have taken advantage of the new programme, and instead Afghan migrants continue streaming into Iran illegally every day in search of jobs. And every day, hundreds - including unaccompanied minors - are sent back to Afghanistan.
Some say the deportations are politically motivated.
“The Ahmadinejad government successfully uses the refugee issue to increase its leverage over Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan,” the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research wrote in 2010.
"Whenever Afghanistan's policies displease Tehran, the Iranian government threatens to expel all Afghans living in Iran. Tehran understands that the fragile Afghan government lacks the capacity to absorb a large number of returnees under current security and economic conditions. At times, it has dumped thousands of Afghans into lawless areas in western Afghanistan without advance coordination with either Afghan authorities or international organizations. Such mass deportations trigger humanitarian crises, undermine security in southern and western Afghanistan, and cause political turmoil in Kabul.”
IRIN was at the Iran-Afghanistan one day last month when 44 buses of deportees crossed the border, according to aid workers who track crossings, along with the bodies of four Afghans who died in Iran. Among those deported was 15-year-old Mehdi. He told IRIN his story:
“I went to Iran with my family when I was only four years old, but because I was an Afghan they never let me enrol in school. Now I am illiterate and since I was 10 years old, I started working on construction sites. My job had always been carrying heavy stuff like cement sacks.
“I have two brothers and two sisters. My father is an elderly man and therefore he and my mother both stay at home. I have got one brother older than me and we two were the only breadwinners of our family.
“I was at home [in Iran*] when my cousin came from Qom (a different city in Iran) to visit us. He is as old as I am. We had a very good time because I could get some time off from my job and I was enjoying it with my family.
“My cousin told me to go to the nearby shopping mall with him so that he could buy some stuff. I said yes. When we got out of the bus near the shopping mall, the Iranian police caught us and handcuffed us. I asked him why he was doing it, but he started swearing at me and kicked me as well. Then we both were taken to a detention centre and thrown into a room, which was full of other Afghans including adults and teenagers as old as me or even much younger than me.
“My hands were hurting because the handcuffs were too tight. I begged the Iranian policeman to loosen them, but instead, he grabbed my ears and started banging my head against the wall.
“They beat me, my cousin and many other Afghans in that detention centre. They had a long piece of metal in their hands and they used it to beat people up.
“The room was very small, but the number of detainees inside was huge. I can say there were at least hundreds of us in one room and especially at night we were all sleeping while sitting because there wasn’t enough space. The weather was cold and they did not giving us warm enough blankets.
“Until a few days back, I had the marks of that long metal thing on my body. You weren’t there to really understand the pain. They don’t care who you are and how old are you they just beat you up like an animal.
“I was taken to different detention centres and police stations for eight days before they brought us all to the Sang Safid detention centre which is on the other side of the border and then deported us.
“Now I am at the IOM transit centre on the border. I contacted my family in Iran. Now they are telling me to go to Kabul and stay with my uncle. Actually that cousin of mine who had been caught with me was deported a couple of days earlier.
“I am so upset that I am no longer with my family. I can no longer play with my younger sister and can no longer eat my mother’s cooking.
“You know my family can’t come to Afghanistan because we do not have a shelter here and I heard there are no job opportunities… I am thinking about how I would survive in Afghanistan without my family.
“But on the other hand, I am so happy that I am a free human being now. Nobody can insult me and nobody can arrest me without any reason and torture me. It is my own country and I can go anywhere without any problem.”
*City name withheld to protect Mehdi’s family.