ANKARA, 18 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reiterated its concern over the fate of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in Iran, who are finding it harder and harder to remain in the host country, which sheltered them since 1979.
"UNHCR expressed concern to the Iranian authorities in the past few months on several occasions that Afghans in Iran might be put under unfair pressure to return," Marie-Helene Verney, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Geneva, told IRIN on Tuesday.
On Saturday, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said at the end of his four-day visit to Afghanistan that hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees would likely return home this year, but the pace of returns should not be speeded up.
Verney's comments came one day after Iran's Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) rejected claims that Tehran was forcing Afghan refugees to go home. Head of BAFIA, Ahmad Hosseini, was quoted by the state news agency, IRNA, as saying that Tehran was making a distinction between legal refugees and Afghan illegal migrants, reiterating the country's bid to confront the latter.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran has no hesitation in confronting the illegal entry of Afghans and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has no right to interfere in Iran`s internal affairs," Hosseini said.
"There is no interference here, we of course completely agree that the Iranian government is entitled to deport illegal migrants. There is no doubt that a number of Afghans in Iran are not refugees, they are in Iran illegally as illegal migrants. We have no issue with the Iranian government deporting illegal migrants back to Afghanistan," Verney said.
"We are concerned about the registered Afghan refugees, we are not implying that the Iranian authorities are deporting them, they are not. What we are concerned about is the fact that it has become harder and harder for [Afghan] refugees to be able to stay in Iran," she added.
According to UNHCR, it has become more difficult for them to obtain proper documentation, without which they are no longer registered. "Without that they are in danger of becoming illegal migrants. We are concerned that Afghan children are no longer allowed to go to Iranian schools, or at least if they do go, they have to pay an enormous amount of money," the UNHCR official maintained. "We are concerned about the fact that health services are no longer accessible to Afghan refugees. These are our concerns."
The Relief Committee for Destitute Afghan Refugees (RC-DARF), a local NGO in Iran dealing with the problems of Afghan refugees, echoed that view. "Afghan refugees have a problem with education here, many refugees don't have money for registering their children at schools. It is a big problem," Fouzia Hariri, head of RC-DARF, told IRIN from the Iranian capital, Tehran. Some reports suggested that Tehran imposed a US $150 annual school fee for refugees' children.
More than a million Afghans refugees had officially returned home from Iran since UNHCR started its voluntary repatriation programme in April 2002. The repatriation process in Iran takes place within the framework of a tripartite agreement, known as the Joint Programme, between the Iranian government, the Afghan authorities and the UN refugee agency. The main aims of the programme are to ensure that repatriation is voluntary, takes place with dignity and is bolstered by assistance towards reintegration once in Afghanistan.
UNHCR is seeking assurances from Iran that Afghan refugees remaining in the country will continue to have access to basic services and that they will not be put under pressure to leave. Talks are currently ongoing with the Iranian authorities on this issue, and UNHCR hopes that these discussions will lead to the renewal of the tripartite agreement when the current one expires on 22 March, the UN refugee agency said in a statement.
"We are hopeful that this agreement can be renewed. In order for this agreement to be renewed we need to have concrete assurances that Afghan refugees are in Iran and will stay in Iran, and their basic rights are respected," Verney emphasised.
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