BAM, 20 Jan 2004 (IRIN) - Another convoy of desperate Afghan refugees who survived the Bam earthquake was scheduled to leave the stricken city on Tuesday, an official from the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told IRIN. Afghans suffered disproportionately in the quake, because they lived in the poorest parts of the city.
"Nobody listened to us, after the quake we got nothing and we decided to leave this city. We have lost everything and we want to go," Nematullah, an Afghan father of five, who had come to Iran some 20 years ago, told IRIN.
"The first convoy with 369 refugees was already sent to Afghanistan via Dogharon [border crossing point] and after this return we received additional requests and we are preparing for a second convoy this week," Philippe Lavanchy, the UNHCR representative in Iran told IRIN from the capital, Tehran, a day earlier, adding that some 260 Afghan refugees would be repatriated on Tuesday.
According to UNHCR, before the quake hit, 5,120 Afghan refugees were registered by the authorities in Bam. Now, around 40 percent of that number have opted for repatriation. "Out of the 5,120 original refugees, we repatriated 1,794 and out of this figure a certain number of people who died during the earthquake and most probably we will have something like 700 to 800 left in Bam city," Chat Demiroz, UNHCR representative in Bam told IRIN.
After the earthquake, that killed at least 42,000 people, UNHCR offered 1,000 tents, as well as blankets and mattresses to victims, including refugees as well as Iranian residents of the city. But a group of Afghan refugees living in tents not far from the Indian field hospital in Bam told IRIN that they their situation was not good. "We don't have enough food, blankets and tents," they said, adding that they went to one of the emergency camps many times asking for help.
Nemat Ziya, from the Relief Committee for Destitute Afghan Refugee Families (RC-DARF), a local NGO working with Afghan refugees in Iran, told IRIN that Afghans in the city were one of the most vulnerable people affected by the quake. "They have a lot of problems, the main ones are food and tents, the other problem is sanitation items and some of them have no blankets," Ziya said.
UNHCR is working to meet the needs of the refugees. "We have a full team in place and their immediate mission is to identify exactly where the Afghans are, what their needs are and how we can assist them in being integrated into global assistance provided to the victims in Bam and ensure that they are treated equally," Lavanchy explained.
But most Afghan refugees in Bam are like Nematullah, and are now waiting to return, either right now, or when the weather improves. "The majority of those left in Bam have asked to be repatriated and for us it will be easy to help them because we have in place since two years now 11 Voluntary Repatriation Centers [VRC] to register those who want to repatriate," Lavanchy said, adding that this was an ongoing exercise and they had repatriated already more than 660,000 Afghan refugees in two years.
"We are, of course, putting in place some additional logistical arrangements in Bam, transportation for refugees and their scarce belonging for example, are made available in Bam for those who want to repatriate. They don't have to go to a VRC and we decided also to give additional exceptional emergency assistance for these people such as blankets, tents, heaters, lanterns and other items," Lavanchy pointed out.
Meanwhile, humanitarian workers remain concerned that the Afghans have enough resources when they get home. "The problem is winter, it is very cold during this season in Afghanistan, they are not able to stay and live under a tent, they should have a warm house," an NGO worker said, adding that there were few such facilities or preparations in Afghanistan for returnees.
Ziya of RC-DARF expressed concern over the possible problems that were awaiting returnees at home. "Some of the people don't have a clear or specific place in Afghanistan, they are waiting what the government of Afghanistan decides," he said, explaining that at this stage, some 70 percent of refugees who didn't have a place in their country of origin to go would prefer to stay in Iran for a while, while 30 percent of them were ready to go back right away as they had definite place to go.
"We are talking about voluntary repatriation, we are not going to tell refugees to return or not to return. We inform them about the situation in their country of origin, we have a mass information exercise in place in all Iran to inform Afghans about the situation in their country of origin, this information includes security, projects in place to assist them, climate and etc," Lavanchy said.
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