TEHRAN, 15 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - A delegation of government officials from the western Afghan province of Herat has recently visited the city of Mashhad in eastern Iran as part of an information campaign to raise the awareness of Afghans living in Iran about the situation in their homeland.
High ranking Afghan officials, including the ministers of refugees and repatriation, education, labour and social affairs and the deputy health minister, travelled to the eastern Iranian province of Khorasan. The trip was part of a 'Come and Talk' programme sponsored by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Iran's Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA).
"The aim was to inform Afghans here about living conditions in Herat city and Herat province, in order to enable them, to inform them if they want to decide to return to Afghanistan voluntarily," said Ghassem Mehraeen, senior mass information clerk at the UNHCR office in Mashad.
About 600 Afghans participated in the 'Come and Talk' programme, including women and children. There were also four meetings with different focus groups. These were with Mashad-based journalists, Afghan health officials, Afghans involved in education and one meeting with investors, mostly Iranians eager to start business ventures in Afghanistan.
Khorasan is home to the second largest population of Afghans in Iran with some 160,000 registered Afghans, around 16 percent of the total number of registered Afghans living in the country.
Mehraeen said the main concern for Afghans returning were health facilities, particularly medical facilities for mothers and children. Afghans also complained of the lack of education facilities in their home country, with teachers saying that Afghan bureaucracy was preventing them from returning.
"The Minister of Education said that about 6,000 teachers are needed in the Herat province alone," said Mehraeen. "A major complaint from Afghan teachers here is the red tape in Afghanistan. Each teacher must go to [the capital] Kabul in person to have the Ministry of Education (MoE) verify their documents. It's very difficult, especially for lone females to go to Kabul, where they have no accommodation," Mehraeen said, adding that the delegation said they would follow up these complaints. According to Mehraeen, many Afghans want to go home but say they are worried about a lack of employment and shelter in Afghanistan.
"Last year the lowest number of returnees were from this province. Most Afghans here are well rooted and have been here [in Iran] for a long time, sometimes two generations. Children have been raised and born here. Many Afghans have businesses here and there are even mixed marriages with Iranians, so it is difficult for them to leave," he said.
According to UNHCR, 60 percent of registered Afghans living in Iran have been there for more than 15 years. The repatriation process in Iran takes place within the framework of a tripartite agreement, known as the Joint Programme.
The main aims of the Joint Programme are to ensure that repatriation is voluntary, takes place with dignity and is bolstered by assistance towards reintegration once in Afghanistan. The most recent tripartite agreement between Iran, Afghanistan and UNHCR expired in March. A new agreement has been agreed in principle but has yet to be signed by Tehran.
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