ANKARA, 1 Nov 2004 (IRIN) - Cooler weather has resulted in a sharp fall in the number of Afghans repatriating to their homeland from Iran. "It's something like 400 to 500 [returns] a day," Xavier Creach, a spokesman for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told IRIN from Tehran, citing cooler temperatures as the primary cause.
"It's like this every year. It's quite normal," he said.
Over one million Afghans have voluntarily returned to their homeland from Iran since the UN refugee agency initiated the programme in April 2002. To date, over half the original Afghan caseload has returned, leaving an estimated 950,000 officially registered Afghan refugees inside the country.
As part of the repatriation programme, 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. An additional VRC, assisting both Iraqi and Afghan refugees, has recently been established in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahwaz, about an hour from the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
After registration, returnees proceed to one of two exit points along the 936 km Iran/Afghan border, the primary one being Dogharoun in Iran's northeastern Khorasan province. A secondary border crossing point is at Milak in southeastern Sistan Baluchistan.
But with the onset of lower temperatures, coupled with the holy month of Ramadan, those numbers have shown a significant drop. In July and August, upwards of 4,000 returnees a day returned to Afghanistan from Iran.
Over 76,000 Afghans repatriated in July this year, followed by 75,090 in August and 68,686 in September respectively, Creach said, adding: "It's 10 times less now".
Still another reason for the drop was the start of the school year in September, he said.
"They (returns) were very high until mid September. Since than it has been decreasing slowly," he said, noting they expected a low rate of return until next year.
"Like every year, we know from October to April the return rate will be quite low - but this is quite low, as conditions inside Afghanistan are not very conducive in the winter," Creach concluded.
According to UNHCR, more than 3.5 million Afghans have returned to their homeland since the end of 2001, primarily from Pakistan and Iran, the two largest host countries of the Afghan diaspora, as well as points in Central Asia.
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