ANKARA, 8 Mar 2004 (IRIN) - Efforts by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees living in Iran to repatriate to their homeland are continuing.
"A series of initiatives undertaken by UNHCR such as mobile teams, organising visits of Afghan officials from different provinces to talk to refugees in Iran about opportunities in Afghanistan, as well as some measures taken by the Iranian government, make us hope that numbers will pick up during the summer season," Marie-Helene Verney, a spokeswoman for the refugee agency, told IRIN from Tehran.
According to government estimates, more than 1.7 million Afghans live in Iran. The UNHCR believes that number to be closer to one million, with the remaining most likely to be economic or illegal migrants. Afghans can be found in most Iranian cities, with large concentrations in northeastern Khorasan province, as well as in Tehran and Qom.
Since the fall of the Taliban at the end of 2001, over two million Afghan refugees have returned to their homeland - the vast majority from Pakistan and Iran - the two largest host countries to the Afghan diaspora.
According to the latest UNHCR figures, over 670,000 Afghans have voluntarily returned from Iran since the repatriation effort first began in April 2002 - many of them with the support of UNHCR.
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.
And while the rate of return from Iran had slowed somewhat in the winter due to colder temperatures, the process had remained operational throughout, Verney stressed. "One of the border crossing points - Milak (southeastern Iran) - closed for a few weeks but reopened in early January," the agency official said, noting the primary border crossing point along the 936 km border remained the border town of Dogharoun in Khorasan province.
Verney added that the number of returns would increase as temperatures improved - with possibly another increase in June at the end of the school year.
UNHCR temporarily suspended a parallel repatriation programme under way in Pakistan following the shooting of UN staff member Bettina Goislard, in the eastern Afghan city of Ghazni in November, due to security concerns and low numbers, only to resume that programme on Tuesday.
But enticing Afghans back to a country still wracked by over two decades of war won't be easy. Socio-economic conditions for Iran's largely urban Afghan caseload remained much better than in Afghanistan, which would account for some of their hesitation. Fewer than three percent live in camps in Iran, while in neighbouring Pakistan, over a million Afghans can be found living in some 200 refugee camps around the country - primarily in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
"UNHCR teams in Afghanistan are doing their best to help returnees start a new life in Afghanistan. However, UNHCR is not a development agency, and short of constantly reminding donor countries to honor their pledge to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, there is not a whole lot that UNHCR can do about this socio-economic gap between the two countries," she maintained.
UNHCR Iran was phasing out its assistance programmes (other than repatriation) to refugees, and would end subsidies to education by the end of this school year, she added.
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