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IRAN: UNHCR continues to assist Afghan refugees

ANKARA, 11 Aug 2004 (IRIN) - The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will continue to assist Afghan refugees inside Iran, despite claims by the Iranian government earlier this week that it had cut assistance to its refugee programmes. In just over two years, the UN refugee agency has assisted hundreds of thousands of Afghans to voluntarily return home.

"UNHCR is and will continue to assist Afghan refugees inside Iran," Marie-Helene Verney, a spokeswoman for the agency told IRIN from Geneva on Wednesday, noting her surprise at the claim. "The idea that we have ceased to provide assistance is simply not based on the reality of all the work that we are doing on the ground."

The UN refugee agency had first informed Tehran one year earlier of reductions in some of its assistance plans, Verney maintained, noting, however, this had been done because of the large number of Afghans that had returned to their homeland.

"There has been a sharp fall in the number of Afghan refugees in Iran. Since 2002, almost 950,000 have repatriated to Afghanistan. The reduction in assistance is linked to the diminishing numbers basically," the UNHCR official explained.

Her comments follow a report on Tuesday that the United Nations had cut the assistance it was providing to Iran for Afghan refugees for the current year, according to Ahmad Hosseini, deputy interior minister and head of the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA), the coordinating body for refugee affairs.

"This issue made Iran suspend the services it was offering to Afghan refugees and immigrants in camps too," the Iranian news agency (IRNA) quoted him as saying, adding: "The UN assistance to Afghan refugees during the past 20 years covered only 5 percent of the expenses incurred by Iran because of the presence of Afghans."

Commenting on this, Verney said: "Iran has been very generous in providing for a very large refugee population for several decades. We do not know exactly how much money the government has spent on refugees, but UNHCR has spent literally millions of dollars in the country to assist Afghan refugees."

And while she agreed that there had been reductions in medical and educational assistance to refugees through the end of this year, she emphasised again this was linked to the large number of people who had returned home, adding, however, health assistance to vulnerable groups would continue.

According to UNHCR, as of last Sunday, 941,617 Afghans had voluntarily returned to their homeland from Iran since the start of the repatriation effort in April 2002, with over 296,000 since the beginning of this year alone.

As part of that assistance effort, returnees register at one of 11 voluntary repatriation centres (VRCs) located throughout Iran - including the cities of Mashhad, Qom, Esfahan, Kerman, Shiraz, Yazd, Arak, Zabol and Zahedan, as well as two in Tehran. There they are provided with an assistance package, including a small monetary grant to facilitate their return.

"The numbers are really up at the moment. Almost 3,000 people are going back each day," Verney said, adding as those numbers continue, the agency would be placing an even greater emphasis on rebuilding efforts inside Afghanistan. "As people return, it is quite natural to see more money being reallocated for reconstruction inside the country," she said.

Iran, alongside Pakistan, remains one of the largest host countries to the Afghan diaspora today.

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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