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MOROD ESKANDARI: This area gets really hot in the summer and gets really cold in the winter. So people are more vulnerable to the temperature when they live in tents. And also in terms of security, they are better off in the houses.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, the plight of Afghan and Serbian refugees.
SERB REFUGEE: Yes, we all believe in democracy. We thought, “This is international condemned regime, so if we flee from our country and go to some Western or NATO country people will help us.”
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees says 20 million refugees or otherwise displaced people are scattered across the world today. This week we’ll hear firsthand accounts of the lives of two significant refugee groups. We begin our report in Iran, a county which has more refugees than any other in the world, including two million from Afghanistan.
[sounds of people in a refugee camp]
PORTER: This is Torbat-E Jam in northeastern Iran. Over 1,300 Afghan refugee families live here, just 50 miles from the border with Afghanistan. Most of us would call Torbat-E Jam a refugee camp, but the folks here refer to it as a refugee guest city.
ALI [AN AFGHAN REFUGEE BOY]: Excuse me, what is your name?
PORTER: My name is Keith. What’s your name?
ALI: I am Ali.
PORTER: Ali. Nice to meet you, Ali.
[sounds of people in a refugee camp]
PORTER: Most of the Afghan refugees in Iran are scattered across the country, living side by side with Iranians. But there are a few small guest cities like Torbat-E Jam. I visited there late last year and spoke with several residents about their life as long-term refugees.
[sounds of people in a refugee camp]
PORTER: How long have you been in this camp?
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE WOMAN: [via a translator] For one year.
PORTER: I found this woman sitting outside a tent cracking open pistachios held in a large bowl. She wore a bright blue cloth over her head.
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE WOMAN: [via a translator] I am Afghan.
PORTER: OK. And why did you leave Afghanistan?
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE WOMAN: [via a translator] There was war in Afghanistan. They would bomb our family. They would bomb our children, and they would bomb our brothers. So I left Afghanistan.
PORTER: Now, she says she’s been here in the camp one year, but how long has she been out of Afghanistan?
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE WOMAN: [via a translator] Fifteen years now. I left when the Soviets were in power.
PORTER: Right. How are conditions here at Torbat-E Jam
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE WOMAN: [via a translator] Yes, I am happy here.
PORTER: You’ve got plenty of food and medical care and other basic necessities?
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE WOMAN: [via a translator] I am happy in terms of medical facilities and I’m happy in general as well…
PORTER: People are…
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE WOMAN: [via a translator] with the way that we are treated, as well.
[sound of someone walking through the refugee camp]
PORTER: Torbat-E Jam has a broad main street in an area which resembles a town square. At one end of the square is a recreation building where a dozen young men talk and play games. On this side of the room refugees are playing the Sega Ultimate Fighting video game.
[sounds of a video game, followed by sounds of foosball]
PORTER: Across the room, a serious game of foosball.
[sounds of foosball]
PORTER: On the other side of the square a doorway leads to what is best described as a factory-a carpet weaving factory. Small hands work quickly, hand knotting the threads over and over and over.
[bumping and pounding sounds]
PORTER: Several Persian-style rugs are being worked on. Each one has the attention of three or four workers at a time. The director of the Torbat-E Jam refugee guest city is Morod Eskandari.
MOROD ESKANDARI: [via a translator] Mainly young people between 10 to 15, because it’s, because the adults are not really interested in making carpets. It’s mainly the young people.
[sounds of the carpet factory continue in the background]
ESKANDARI [via a translator] And it’s also help for the families, to help with the families. The adults go, can go out of the guest city and work there.
PORTER: My colleague and Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Erlich spoke with two of the boys working here.
[The young workers are interviewed]
REESE ERLICH: How old is each of them?
CARPET FACTORY WORKER: [via a translator] He is 11 years old, and he goes to school.
THE TRANSLATOR He is the first year in junior high school. And, and he is in the first year of junior high school as well.
ERLICH: So he’s, how old is he?
CARPET FACTORY WORKER: [via a translator] Eleven years old.
ERLICH: Eleven. And do they like weaving the carpets? Or is it hard work?
CARPET FACTORY WORKER: [via a translator] Yes, I like it.
PORTER: Back outside, I tried to get more details from the camp director about how the carpet business works.
ESKANDARI [via a translator] It’s owned by the government and people from, migrants, they come in, they hired some other migrants and they work for them. The government doesn’t have any involvement in this.
PORTER: But when the rugs are sold, where does the money go?
ESKANDARI [via a translator] It’s the employer who gets the money.
PORTER: Which is?
ESKANDARI [via a translator] It’s a private migrants, yeah.
PORTER: Okay. Okay.
ESKANDARI [via a translator] Oh, a migrant hires another migrant to work for him. Yeah.
PORTER: I got you. So when the rugs are sold, then-or just in general, I guess-what do those kids earn? How are they paid?
ESKANDARI [via a translator] It depends on the employer, how much they pay them. And it depends on like how much they work. And the more, if they work more they get more paid. And I mean, it depends on the employer. We don’t know anything about that?
PORTER: There’s not regulation that the camp has on the workers? On what they pay the workers?
ESKANDARI [via a translator] There are no written regulations, but we supervise here that they get paid the same amount of money as they get outside of the camp, and not less than that. And there’s also competition among the camp’s employers and they try to, people work for the, whoever pays more to them.
[sounds of children playing in the camp]
PORTER: Like almost everywhere I’ve been, children in Torbat-E Jam were fascinated with the recording equipment.
[sound of children talking, laughing]
PORTER: What’s your name?
[A child laughs]
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE : [via a translator] I am happy in general. And its okay.
PORTER: Plenty of food, medical facilities, education?
[The refugee is interviewed]
PORTER: This Torbat-E Jam resident was standing outside his home.
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE: [via a translator] Yes, we have doctors here. We have a school here. We have everything here.
PORTER: Do you work here in the camp? Do you work outside of the camp?
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE: [via a translator] I work in Mashhad. I work in the city.
PORTER: What kind of job do you do there?
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE: [via a translator] I work in construction business.
PORTER: Are you here with your family? At Torbat-E Jam?
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE: [via a translator] Yes, I do.
PORTER: And how big is your family? How many people?
AN AFGHAN REFUGEE : [via a translator] Nine people. I have seven children.
ESKANDARI [via a translator] Seven thousand and thirty-five people live in this guest city.
PORTER: Okay. And of those, how many live in tents?
[Eskandari responds to the question]
PORTER: This again is Camp Director Morod Eskandari.
ESKANDARI [via a translator] There are 1,317 families living in this guest city. And right now 170 people live in the houses. And we are developing 571 more houses here. And people will be living in the houses in, by the end of the year 2000. This area gets really hot in the summer and gets really cold in the winter. So people are more vulnerable to the temperature when they live in tents. And also in terms of security, they are better off in the houses, rather than tents. And they are, I mean they are less vulnerable to fire and different kind of security problems that they may have. And people who live in tents, they have more medical problems than people who live in the houses.
PORTER: This is the inside of one of the tents. There is a little samovar there and some tea set up. The floor has a rug. There’s some blankets and small mattresses piled in the far left corner there. Two small windows in the back wall. A door on the front wall. A couple of foot lockers. Walls look like they’re made out of, a sort of brick, clay-covered brick; tarp over a roof that’s made out of what looks like bamboo and with the tarp laid over the top of the very thick stalks of bamboo.
[sound of someone using tools]
PORTER: Houses here are actually small buildings, each divided into two or three separate housing units. Inside one nearly completed home, I asked one of the children following through the camp what he thought of the house.
HASSAN AMENI : [via a translator] Ameni. Hassan Ameni
PORTER: And how old are you?
AMENI : [via a translator] Nine years old.
PORTER: Nine years old. Do you live in a house like this? Do you live in a unit like this, or do you live in a tent?
AMENI : [via a translator] In a tent.
PORTER: Do you hope someday to live in a place like this?
HASSAN AMENI : [via a translator] Yes, I’d love it.
PORTER: This is much nicer than a tent.
HASSAN AMENI : [via a translator] Yes it is.
PORTER: The constant construction in Torbat-E Jam is proof that these Afghan refugees are not going anywhere for quite some time. Since the early 1980s Iran has hosted millions of Afghans, first driven out during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and more recently fleeing the Taliban, an Islamic revolutionary government deemed too fundamentalist even by Iranian standards. The United Nations and the government of Iran are running a small joint program to voluntarily return refugees to Afghanistan. Out of nearly two million Afghans in Iran, officials say 4,500 use this repatriation program each week. It’s unclear how many of these people immediately come back to Iran. But what is clear is that until there is an end to conflict in Afghanistan more houses will be built in places like Torbat-E Jam.
PORTER: I see that some people here live in the houses back there and some people live in tents. Why are you still in a tent and why not in a house?
AFGHAN REFUGEE: [via a translator] Not all of the houses are finished yet, so we are not living in houses yet.
PORTER: How long have you been at Torbat-E Jam?
AFGHAN REFUGEE: [via a translator] I’ve been here for the past 16 months.
PORTER: Okay. And when did you leave Afghanistan?
AFGHAN REFUGEE: [via a translator] I left Afghanistan in 1985-’86.
PORTER: And do you plan to go back some day?
AFGHAN REFUGEE: [via a translator] If there is security I’d love to [go] back to my country. If there is security I will go back.
PORTER: You can learn more about Iran and hear our one-hour radio documentary, “The Struggle For Iran,” by visiting this Web site: www.iranproject.org. That’s www.iranproject.org.
[sounds of construction]
PORTER: Serbian refugees trapped in Hungary, next on Common Ground.
SERB REFUGEE: I’m losing my life here. I lost best ten years of my life. I fought so many battles with regime, me and my friends. And every battle was lost for us. For ten years.
MCHUGH: Events in the past year in Serbia, Albania, and Kosovo highlight the fragile peace in the former Yugoslavia, which discourage many Serbs and Kosovars who fled the region and have not yet returned from doing so.
PORTER: But there is another group of people who fled the Kosovo war, who cannot return to Yugoslavia even if they wanted to. These are the Serbs who deserted from the army or left before they were drafted rather than fight for a regime they opposed in a war they couldn’t support. Many fled to Hungary, their nearest neighbor and a member of NATO. They believed they would be welcomed in the West because they had abandoned a regime described as criminal. They were not, and have instead found themselves abandoned. From the Common Ground archives, we hear Correspondent’s Max Easterman’s report from Budapest.
MAX EASTERMAN: When the war broke out in Kosovo many ethnic Serb young men left Yugoslavia because NATO urged them to do so in a propaganda campaign. Others just followed their consciences. Some were already drafted; some were due to be called up. Either way they’d burned their bridges and knew they could not go back. But they didn’t expect to find themselves squatting in a squalid Budapest apartment. On the contrary, they thought they’d help NATO and they’d be rewarded for that courage.
SERB REFUGEE: There was a strong propaganda from NATO during the action. They had a TV, I think it was broadcasted from the Allies, and there was a lot of pamphlets dropping out from the planes that suggested us to run away, not to fight for Milosovec.
EASTERMAN: These pamphlets, did this television, actually say you would be helped if you left?
SERB REFUGEE: They didn’t say it exactly but they gave you only this choice: stay in Serbia and leave your bones in Kosovo, or resist Milosovec and run away from his war and his stupid politics.
EASTERMAN: Did you have a reasonable belief that you would be given some help when you left Serbia?
SERB REFUGEE: Yes. We all believe in democracy. We thought, “This is international condemned regime, so if we flee from our country and go to some Western or NATO country, people will help us.”
EASTERMAN: Did you think you would virtually automatically become refugees?
SERB REFUGEE: Yes. Yes.
[sound of a group of people talking]
EASTERMAN: It was easy enough for these men to get into Hungary; Yugoslavs with a valid passport don’t need a visa. But later, when they applied for asylum, only a tiny minority are granted refugee status; just 37 out of nearly 3,000 last year. The rest are either rejected or get what’s called “Leave to Stay.” These men are effectively trapped in Hungary. Over 200 of them are here, in an old Russian barracks on the outskirts of the eastern city of Debrecen. It’s now used as a holding center for asylum seekers. They can go out into the town; indeed they can travel to apply to foreign embassies for asylum. But they soon find that such trips are a waste of time and of what little money they still possess. The European Union and other NATO states, like the USA, are just not interested.
SERB REFUGEE: I tried to go to Germany to visit my father. He is there more than 25 years. And I try many times to obtain any kind of visa, but German workers in embassy told me that I must go to Belgrade to apply for visa there. I cannot do that, of course. But they said that they cannot help me.
SERB REFUGEE: They are just very arrogant. They just said, “What?! You don’t have a passport? You’re not refugee? Sorry, we can’t help you. Bye-bye.”
SERB REFUGEE: I couldn’t come in American embassy. Won’t let me in.
SERB REFUGEE: They won’t let us in.
EASTERMAN: They won’t even let you into the embassy?
SERB REFUGEE: No, no.
EASTERMAN: So you couldn’t even speak to them?
SERB REFUGEE: No. They just said, “Who are you? You are from Serbia. Bye-bye.”
EASTERMAN: How do you feel now?
SERB REFUGEE: Certainly betrayed, because we were expecting some help, but everybody forgotten about us.
SERB REFUGEE: We escaped from one prison into other prison, because we are trapped here. We are just nameless and homeless.
EASTERMAN: The foreign embassies are only obeying the rules, of course. And the Hungarians would be quite within their rights to send back anyone they feel has no cause to remain in Hungary. They haven’t done so yet, realizing perhaps that it mightn’t look too good if the men they did send back were thrown into a Serbian prison for desertion or draft evasion. They could get up to 20 years, or worse. Because almost all these men have been actively opposed to the Milosovec regime for years, and they’ve already made enemies in the ruling Socialist Party. Their fear is now that Hungary will run out of patience and force them to go back to Serbia and the very uncertain fate that awaits them there.
SERB REFUGEE: My neighbor told me, “You and your friends, you invited NATO to bomb in Serbia. My son is in Kosovo and fighting for Serbia.”
SERB REFUGEE: “And you will pay for it.”
SERB REFUGEE: “And you will pay for it when the war is over.”
EASTERMAN: Did you receive threats against your life?
SERB REFUGEE: There was once on the telephone, a male voice on the telephone. He said, “You are on my list. I’ll get you.”
EASTERMAN: If there was a democratic government in Serbia, would you go back?
SERB REFUGEE: No.
EASTERMAN: Why not?
SERB REFUGEE: Because my family threatened me.
EASTERMAN: Your family threatened you?
SERB REFUGEE: Yeah. Yeah. My grandfather, my uncle. They kill me.
EASTERMAN: Your grandfather said that?
SERB REFUGEE: Grandfather, yeah.
SERB REFUGEE: I am for him traitor. He tell me that I don’t deserve to live in Serbia, you know.
EASTERMAN: So you believe if you went back your grandfather would kill you?
SERB REFUGEE: Yeah. Yeah. I believe.
EASTERMAN: So far the Hungarian authorities have shown no intention of sending ethnic Serbs back. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights monitoring group, doesn’t believe they will. But their president, Ferenc Koszeg, says it’s equally unlikely they’re going to do anything positive, like giving them refugee status. The reason, he says, is simple.
FERENC KOSZEG: Hungarian behavior is highly influenced by the media of the NATO and it’s quite certain that Hungary will not do anything which is seemingly different from the behavior of the NATO. Hungary is a country which is not very open to accept asylum seekers.
EASTERMAN: So for the Serbs, the ethnic Serbs, the future looks fairly grim?
KOSZEG: Yes. It’s true. It’s true.
EASTERMAN: That impression was confirmed when I talked to Istvan Dobo, the head of the Directorate for Asylum Affairs in Hungary’s Immigration Department. Mr. Dobo says Serbs are still arriving claiming to be deserters influenced by NATO’s propaganda. And so he sees no reason to change policy on granting refugee status.
ISTVAN DOBO: First of all, as far as I know, no one permits those Yugoslav citizens, that if they will leave Yugoslavia, they will get refugee status. In any other country, whether it is a NATO member or not. And I also would mention that as far as I know there is no reason to provide any kind of protection just because someone left the army in his country of origin.
EASTERMAN: But do you not think that under the circumstances, the NATO countries, Western European countries, have a moral obligation to these Serbs, to actually take them in and do something about their situation?
ISTVAN DOBO: I could say yes, but unfortunately, providing any kind of protection is a legal and not a moral question. But I would emphasize the reason why we rejected these applications, that during the procedure he or she couldn’t prove persecution.
EASTERMAN: But the question is, how does anyone get proof of any threat of persecution in such a situation. The problem for the Serbs really stems from the fact that the Kosovo War ended without a proper treaty. After the Bosnian War, the Dayton Accords provided an amnesty for deserters and draft evaders. There’s nothing like that for Kosovo. Ferenc Koszeg believes NATO was just too confident it would never need to worry about the Serb deserters.
KOSZEG: I think that NATO leadership, NATO countries, were convinced that the war would end with the end of the Milosovec regime, and therefore they were not thinking, what will happen to the people who left the country following the r suggestion of NATO. But it did not happen. Milosovec survived the war and nobody can say how long his regime will last. So therefore I think it’s high time to find a solution for these people who are now in a legal limbo without a real long-term protection.
EASTERMAN: Is this another example of Fortress Europe, in effect?
KOSZEG: Unfortunately it is.
EASTERMAN: The attitude of NATO and the EU to these asylum seekers is beginning to both worry and disgust the NGOs in Hungary and beyond. Stefan Berglund is the representative of the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in Budapest. And he’s convinced it’s time the Western democracies accepted that they have a case to answer.
STEFAN BERGLUND: I think if I, during the last 10 years, ever saw a real refugee, fulfilling all the legal instrument requirements that there are, it would be the Kosovars who fled that conflict. And Hungary did not give refugee status to them. Also, when you look at the draft evaders, we feel quite clear that they would qualify as refugees. And yet they did not.
EASTERMAN: They are saying, that NATO countries, the European Union, and NATO countries, have effectively just washed their hands of them.
BERGLUND: I think that you could say that. I think those persons who instigated a leaflet campaign over the areas concerned do carry a very heavy responsibility.
EASTERMAN: The UNHCR has repeatedly urged the Hungarians to resolve the situation by granting refugee status to all Serbs of military age. But public opinion throughout the EU is against the UNHCR’s line. A fact of which Stefan Berglund is well aware.
BERGLUND: There is still, both in Central Europe, which Hungary represents, and Western Europe, xenophobic tendencies on the increase, which is perhaps best exemplified in elections, which we have seen now in Switzerland and after that in Austria. Where politicians on the far right have gained new ground.
EASTERMAN: The xenophobes are beginning to win?
BERGLUND: For the time being the xenophobic tendencies in Western and Central Europe are on the rise, yes.
EASTERMAN: And that must be a worry for you.
BERGLUND: Very much so. Very much so.
EASTERMAN: The UNHCR has taken on one asylum case as a test case and is prepared to pursue it to the Hungarian Supreme Court, however long that may take. Almost certainly it will be too long for many of the young Serbs I’ve been meeting. For them time is running out and that fact is now forcing them to rethink their future and to contemplate what so many others have done before them-an illegal border crossing into the European Union.
SERB REFUGEE: I think they have forgotten us at all. And I’m not sure that they care because I don’t see that. But they have prejudices to us because we are Serbs. I mean, Western, not the member states’ governments. I want to still believe that it’s not true, but the time is passing and I’m still here. It means the only solution for me is to go somewhere illegally, maybe to Austria. I think they have a responsibility to us to do something.
SERB REFUGEE: I am losing my life here. I lost best 10 years of my life. I fought so many battles with the regime, my and my friends. And every battle was lost for us, for 10 years. What did I done for 10 years? Nothing. The regime was stronger and stronger, our position was divided, and everything was going downward. But when nobody is listening, when every battle is lost, I just said to myself, “OK, now it’s time for my life.” And I just forget about my country and I forget about everything. I don’t have any more feeling of patriotism or something like that. I just want to go somewhere where I can live normal and enjoy my life a little bit.
EASTERMAN: Many of these men will, in the end, try to flee into Austria. With anti-immigrant feelings running high in a country that’s recently taken an extreme right-wing party into government, they’re likely to get even less of a welcome there than they had here in Hungary. But whether they stay or go, the EU and NATO governments cannot leave these Serbs on the conscience of Hungary for much longer. If they don’t take them in, they’ll come to them anyway. For Common Ground, I’m Max Easterman.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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