ANKARA, 2 Mar 2006 (IRIN) - The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that based on last year's returns it is budgeting to assist an estimated 150,000 Afghan refugees to voluntarily return to their homeland this year from Iran, host to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. UNHCR Iran adds that should the number of voluntary returns increase, it will adjust its programmes accordingly.
"The main challenge is to be able to merge desires and aspirations of Afghans to go back with the very difficult conditions in Afghanistan and the ability for many to establish sustainable living conditions and livelihoods upon their return," UNHCR country representative, Sten Bronee, said from the Iranian capital, Tehran, on Thursday.
"It is also crucial to sustain the understanding and appreciation both within Iran and Afghanistan for the predicament of the Afghans in making this difficult choice," Bronee added, referring to some of the challenges facing the effort.
Since the UN refugee agency began its voluntary repatriation programme for Afghanistan in 2002, more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees have returned to their homeland - the vast majority from Pakistan and Iran - the two largest host countries to the Afghan diaspora. More than 1.4 million Afghans have returned to their homeland from Iran, 844,000 of whom have received assistance from UNHCR.
In 2002, the refugee agency in Iran assisted 260,000 to return; followed by 142,000 in 2003, 378,000 in 2004, and 64,000 in 2005. This decrease in return numbers is seen as natural following several consecutive years of high return rates, according to the agency.
As part of that assistance effort, returnees register at one of 10 voluntary repatriation centres (VRCs) located throughout Iran - including the cities of Mashhad, Qom, Esfahan, Kerman, Shiraz, Yazd, Arak, Zabol, Zahedan, and Tehran, as well as a dispatching station in Khravan. In Iran they are provided with an assistance package, including a small monetary grant to facilitate their return.
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 despite the programme's successes, many challenges remain in Iran, where according to the government just over 900,000 registered Afghans still live.
"Another challenge is to ensure that the international community remains focused on the need for the continued support for Afghan refugees who decide to return voluntarily and for those who remain in the host countries. It is equally essential that the host countries in the region receive continued support for maintaining the refugees pending their return," Bronee explained.
The repatriation process in Iran takes place within the framework of the tripartite agreement, known as the Joint Programme. The main aims of the Joint Programme are to ensure that repatriation of all Afghan refugees who are registered with the Iranian authorities is voluntary, takes place with dignity and is bolstered by assistance towards reintegration once in Afghanistan.
Although the current Tripartite Agreement, signed in the western Afghan city of Herat in June 2005, is set to expire on 21 March, an extension is expected at the next Tripartite Commission between Tehran, Kabul and UNHCR on 8 March in the western Iranian city of Mashad.
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