TEHRAN, 20 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - Top UN officials have praised Iran for hosting more refugees than almost any other country in the world, in remarks made in the capital, Tehran, marking World Refugee Day on Monday.
"Iran still ranges among the countries that have the highest number of refugees in the world. This is a record which Iran and Iranian people can be proud of as a demonstration of a humanitarian commitment," UNHCR's resident representative in Tehran, Sten Bronee, said at a press conference.
Bronee said UNHCR has given US $100,000 to support Iran's repatriation programme. Facilities provided include 11 repatriation centres that assist Afghans on their way home, dispute settlement committees to help returnees solve technical and financial difficulties which may be stalling their departure and medical facilities.
There are still some 950,000 registered Afghan refugees in Iran but many have already gone home, the returns starting after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. At its peak, Iran was host to over three million Afghans.
Bronee said that UNHCR's repatriation programme in Iran is one of the largest in the world and last year alone, some 11,000 buses and 15,000 trucks were employed to repatriate Afghans.
"The situation in the region has changed quite dramatically over the past years and there is both a trend among government and refugees to seek to repatriate refugees from Afghanistan," Bronee said, stressing the voluntary nature of repatriation. "Last year some 400,000 refugees were returned with UNHCR assistance."
The numbers of Afghans living illegally in Iran, many as economic migrants, are not known, although unofficial estimates put the total at between 200,000 to 300,000. Many say the figure is much higher. As part of a crackdown on illegal workers, the government has imposed harsh penalties for those found employing illegal Afghan workers.
Despite all the measures persuading Afghans to repatriate, UNHCR assistance, government incentives and crackdowns on illegal workers, many still want to stay in Iran.
Ahmad Azad, 18, was smuggled to Iran by people traffickers two years ago. He paid about $150 for the perilous journey, spending four nights crossing the mountains that border Iran, near the southeastern city of Zahedan, by foot.
"There were ten of us altogether. It was freezing in the mountains. It was a very hard journey," he said. Ahmad is an illegal worker and he is paid $2.50 a day as a porter in an apartment block in the wealthy suburbs of north Tehran. He has no identification papers and if caught he will be arrested and sent back to Afghanistan.
"They've said on TV that we will have to leave soon, but unless things get really bad for us here, I am going to stay," Ahmad said. "There's no work in Afghanistan. If you do get a job, you get paid a dollar a day. That's not enough to live on."
Ahmad has twelve siblings and lived with his parents in a small village near Herat. He sends money back to his family and said that he misses them.
"It used to be easy getting into Iran but now it's so hard, so I can't leave," he said. Like many Afghans in Iran, Ahmad does not want to return to Afghanistan. With insecurity still a key issue, Afghans fear the situation in their homeland is getting worse and the lure of employment in Iran is too great.
"I would go home tomorrow if I could get a well-paid job. Afghanistan is my country, after all. But until then, what choice do I have?"
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