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AFGHANISTAN-IRAN: Interview with Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

TEHRAN, 15 Apr 2004 (IRIN) - Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was in Iran earlier this week as part of a nine-day mission to the region focussing on the voluntary repatriation of Afghan and Iraqi refugees. Lubbers arrived in Tehran on Monday night to begin talks with senior Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Interior Minister Musavi Lari.

Iran hosts the largest number of Afghan and Iraqi refugees in the world, but since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, 400,000 Afghan refugees in Iran have opted to return to their homeland.
Iran's 200,000 Iraqi refugees have also been leaving the country is large numbers since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein last year. He spoke to IRIN about the main challenges faced by Iran in relation to its large refugee population.

QUESTION: What is the purpose of your visit?

ANSWER: There are three main reasons for my visit: the issue of repatriation, to make sure there are good checks on expulsions, and preparing a dialogue for a regional approach between Iran and Afghanistan.

Q: Since March 2002 over 2 million Afghans have been repatriated - where are we now in the process?

A: We have still got quite a lot to do, because here in Iran there are still 1.4 million Afghans whom we consider to be our concern, and we consider as refugees. Until 1 April next year we have a tri-partite agreement between Afghanistan, Iran and ourselves. We will repatriate 500,000, quite a big number, but we will do our utmost to inform people, and to assist them to go.

Q: There have been recent reports that the Iranian government's Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) is to impose further restrictions on Afghans still living in the country. Have you discussed these issues during your stay in Tehran and how have they responded?

A: I think they will respect the tri-partite agreement. But it is our common policy to reduce assistance to Afghans here because we should avoid a situation where, although it is secure enough in Afghanistan to go home, people stay here because of the benefits in terms of schools and medicines and other things. They say 'why should we change from Iran to Afghanistan and go for a more difficult life?' so we too have reduced our assistance programme.

Q: Earlier this month you called for improved security in Afghanistan to aid the repatriation process, how has the response been to your call?

A: I think it's still not perfect but step by step it's improving. We have the return commissions working, which looks into rumours or realities of harassment of people. We then address that, so the responsible authorities have a tough talk with local chiefs if something goes wrong, which is essential because the experiences of the past have left many people concerned. Recently we asked the governor of the Bamyan province [where many Afghans of Hazara ethnic origin live] to explain that the situation has very much improved and that stimulates Hazaras to go home.

Q: Are you happy with Iran's level of cooperation?

A: Yes. I think there are always tough negotiations and I mean that's not a big problem. For us they are transparent, we speak with them and normally when we have problems we work it out together.

Q: What efforts are being made to find a long-term solution for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Afghanistan?

A: There are large numbers of IDPs in Afghanistan but many have already gone home. I think we still have 150,000, but by the end of next year they will all be home. Here we have the problem of course that after bringing back the 500,000 I spoke about, there will still be considerable numbers here [in Iran], so then we have to sort it out.

Do they all have to go back after that, or are there certain people who can stay here because they have become very productive members of the society in Iran? I already have the first indications that this will not be easy but also not impossible. Not easy, because there is large unemployment in Iran, but at the same time, they [the Iranians] agreed that positive relations between Iran and Afghanistan are very important.

Therefore it might be a win-win situation for the two countries if those who are very productive are not all pushed out, so this is also part of the solution. This doesn't exclude the fact that next year we have to look to some very vulnerable groups, and there may be some difficult cases where we have to find other solutions.

Q: Why have fewer Afghans chosen to leave Iran than Pakistan?

A: Because Iran has a higher level of income than Pakistan, conditions in Iran are better still in terms of schools and medical care and so on, you might say 'let's stay a while here' so that's the reason.

Q: How is the increasingly volatile situation in Iraq effecting repatriation?

A: I still think speaking with my own people here that by far the large majority of Iraqis living in Iran still want to go home, even though there is a volatile situation. Although already 70,000 - that's about one third of Iraqis living in Iran - have gone home, we don't hear stories of problems, so it is an indication that in the villages and where they go back, they are received as family and do not become victims of violence again.

Q: What has happened to the fate of the expelled Afghan refugees?

A: It's not so much a case of expelled Afghan refugees, what we have is expelled people who became illegal without documentation and who are rounded up by police and security forces and are then brought to the other side of the border. On this, we have successfully negotiated with the government to have a look at these people to see if there are any refugees among them. It is very good we can have this check and in general there is proof that policies practiced here are correct in that sense. This is of course a very important preventative measure because if people who do the rounding up know that there is an HCR check further down the road, near the border, they are more careful not to make mistakes.

Q: There are proposals to re-irrigate the marshes of Southern Iraq - how realistic is it that the Marsh Arab refugees in Iran will be able to return to their former way of life?

A: I think it will be quite difficult. I know that the UN is looking into it, in particular UNDP together with others. But UNHCR as a refugee agency certainly has not got the capacity to do the work, which is quite a challenge.

Q: At the recent donor meeting in Berlin were you satisfied with the response from donors towards the issue of repatriation?

A: Yes I was in Berlin, I was even surprised to hear from President Karzai that the promises in Tokyo in the earlier conference were kept, which is an indication that the international community takes Afghanistan very seriously. There were new promises made in Berlin, so I'm positive now about that. I think this will help the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and it will help Afghan refugees to return home and build a new Afghanistan.

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 2004

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