KABUL, 29 December 2008 - Iran is to suspend large-scale deportations of illegal Afghan migrants until March 2009, the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Returnees (MoRR) has said.
The agreement was reached during a visit to Tehran by an Afghan delegation led by the second vice-president on 26 December.
"We have been assured there will be no expulsions of Afghans from Iran this winter," Abdul Karim Barahawi, the minister of refugees, told reporters in Kabul on 28 December 2008.
Tehran's verbal assurances are expected to be converted into a formal written agreement in the near future, Barahawi said.
Aid workers have been warning that continued deportations could prompt a humanitarian crisis this winter by adding to the country's current burdens: Some eight million of the most vulnerable Afghans are facing a difficult winter due to severe drought, high food prices and the ongoing conflict.
Iran has deported over 362,000 Afghans so far in 2008. About 360,000 were also expelled in 2007, according to MoRR.
The MoRR said 920,000 registered Afghan refugees and around 1.5 million Afghan migrants were currently living in Iran.
Unemployment, poverty, drought, insecurity and the lack of jobs were the major "push" factors driving young men to neighbouring Iran and other countries, experts said.
The annual flow of remittances from Iran to Afghanistan is estimated at US$500, according to a survey by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) released in Kabul on 7 December.
However, in the past three years, mass deportations from Iran have been a major political challenge for the Afghan government: Two cabinet ministers were sacked over deportation-related rows in May 2007.
Work permits for 300,000
In an effort to find a long-term solution, the government said it had been working with the Iranian authorities to issue work permits for 300,000 Afghan workers in Iran.
"We will give passports and the government of Iran will issue visas and work permits so that their residence and work will be regulated," Barahawi said.
No one at the Iranian embassy in Kabul was immediately available to confirm Tehran's willingness to suspend the deportations and issue work permits.
Thus far both Afghanistan and Iran have failed to regularise cross-border movements and implement appropriate immigration polices, the UNHCR/ILO survey said.
Smuggling networks, which control over 90 percent of border crossings, generate fees of some US$94 million from migrants every year, and deprive the two countries of an estimated $221 million, the survey found.
The regularisation of trans-border movements, and Iranian immigration reforms, should yield economic and security benefits for Afghanistan and Iran, experts say.