"The numbers are definitely increasing," Jack Redden, a UNHCR spokesman, told IRIN from the Iranian capital, Tehran on Thursday. "At present, we are looking at about 2,000 people crossing a day, about double the number one month earlier."
According to UNHCR figures, 432,825 Afghans have voluntarily returned since the joint programme with Tehran began on 9 April 2002. Of this number, 286,559 received assistance from UNHCR, while another 146,266 returned spontaneously - without assistance.
Redden noted that this year alone, 26,269 had been assisted through Dogharun, the main crossing point along Iran's 900-km-plus frontier with Afghanistan, while 97 passed through the secondary crossing point at Milak to the south. Additionally, close to 30,000 had returned unassisted, he added.
As part of the voluntary programme, returnees register at one of 10 voluntary repatriation centres located throughout the country - comprising the cities of Mashhad, Zahedan, Qom, Esfahan, Kerman, Shiraz, Yazd and Arak, as well as two in Tehran. There they are provided with an assistance package, including a small monetary grant to facilitate their return.
Repatriation figures during the winter months dropped substantially with the colder temperatures, but Redden expected the numbers now to continue to increase, a phenomenon he attributed to warmer temperatures and the end of the school season. "There is a definitely a seasonal aspect to this," he said.
While UNHCR has a planning figure to assist up to 500,000 Afghans this year from Iran, the agency official doubted whether that number would be reached based on current numbers. "Maintaining a sustainable return for Afghans remains our main challenge," he said.
Just last month, the UN refugee agency's chief, Ruud Lubbers, cautioned that refugee returns could be threatened by rising insecurity in parts of Afghanistan, stressing that it was "absolutely crucial" for the Afghan authorities and the international community to take concrete measures to strengthen security in the country, particularly in rural areas.
"UNHCR and its partners have worked hard to help more than 2 million people return home over the past year, but the sustainability of those and future returns is now being jeopardised by insecurity in parts of Afghanistan," said Lubbers, responding to recent outbreaks of violence in the country.
Noting that in 2002, almost 1.8 million Afghans had returned from Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian republics, Lubbers remarked: "This positive trend could easily be reversed if the more than 3 million Afghans still in Iran and Pakistan once again lose hope in being able to go home."
In a parallel programme to Iran's, UNHCR has helped about 1.6 million refugees to return from neighbouring Pakistan. A small number have also gone home on their own. This year, UNHCR has made provisions to assist 600,000 Afghan refugees in returning home from that country.
According to figures provided last year to IRIN by the Iranian interior ministry's Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants, the coordinating body for refugee affairs, some 2.3 million Afghans were officially living in the country, making Iran - alongside Pakistan - one of the two countries hosting the largest number of Afghan refugees.
The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003
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