TEHRAN, 30 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - A new tripartite agreement was signed on Tuesday between Iran, Afghanistan and the office of the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), facilitating the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Iran.
"It is essential that the repatriation programme continues and UNHCR continues to be supported by the international community to enable us to assist in the voluntary repatriation and to provide assistance to Afghan refugees remaining in Iran," said Sten Bronee, UNHCR representative in Iran.
The extension of the agreement, known as the Joint Programme, was signed in the western Afghan city of Herat and will expire in March 2006. It is estimated that some 200,0000 Afghan refugees will be voluntarily repatriated during this time. This is the second extension of the agreement between Iran, Afghanistan and UNHCR which aims to repatriate Iran's Afghan refugees.
Following negotiations, Iran agreed to some revisions in the agreement.
"The agreement does contain a number of amendments and additions [which] to our minds are improvements on the whole. Some relate to the mass information campaign. We have expanded it to encompass different mediums such as TV and radio," said Bronee.
At a press conference in Herat, Ahmad Hosseini, the Director General of the Iranian interior ministry's Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA), announced another important change to identification documents known as amayesh cards. These will be extended in two phases, the first running up to 7 October this year. The government will then introduce a second phase and the amayesh cards will be extended until the end of the Iranian calendar year, 21 March.
Bronee also said that BAFIA announced that Afghan children remaining in Iran will have better access to education, particularly at primary and secondary schools and will be charged what he called a 'reasonable fee.'
"We consider these all very positive moves," said Bronee.
The agreement underlines the voluntary nature of the repatriation operation and also ensures the provision of basic support and assistance during the process including transportation, medical facilities and customs procedures.
Since the launch of the Joint Programme in 2002, some 1.3 million Afghan refugees have returned voluntarily from Iran with 780,000 assisted by UNHCR. Around 520,000 have returned spontaneously.
There are currently some 950,000 registered Afghan refugees remaining in Iran, the lowest number in almost 20 years. At its height, Iran was home to over three million Afghan refugees. Unlike other refugee populations in the region, the majority of Afghans in Iran do not live in refugee camps but are fully integrated members of society.
Sixty percent of the Afghan refugee population has been living in Iran for at least 15 years. However, the Iranian government has recently stepped up efforts to encourage Afghans to return home. Such measures include a reduction of government services, the introduction of school fees for Afghan children and a ban on Afghans settling in a number of Iranian provinces.
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