DUBAI, 28 February 2007 (IRIN) - A voluntary repatriation programme for thousands of Afghan refugees to return to their home country from Iran has been extended for another year following a meeting by the governments of Iran and Afghanistan and the United Nations refugees agency on Tuesday.
An accord has been extended until 19 March 2008, officials at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tehran told IRIN on Wednesday. The current Tripartite Agreement between Iran, Afghanistan and UNHCR, which has been governing the repatriation process, expires on 20 March 2007.
Hosting around 915,000 Afghan refugees and 54,000 Iraqi refugees, Iran has the second largest refugee population in the world after Pakistan. While the repatriation drive has been extended for another year, most Afghans in Iran are reluctant to return.
"Many Afghans have become rooted here [in Iran] and have been here for over 20 years," Dina Faramarzi, a spokeswoman for UNHCR Iran, told IRIN from Tehran. "They are worried about their future," Faramarzi said. "Many Afghans who I've spoken to say they will stay in Iran as long as they can."
UNCHR began its Afghan voluntary repatriation programme in 2002 following the ousting of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. More than 1.6 million Afghans have returned from Iran since April 2002, but the pace reduced significantly in 2006, with only around 5,000 returning.
The Iranian government has long been insisting that all Afghans should repatriate, arguing that the Taliban regime had been removed and the circumstances that forced the refugees to flee their country were no longer there.
Many of those who have already returned have told their relatives remaining in Iran about insecurity and poor living conditions in Afghanistan, the UNHCR official added.
"Most of them [Afghans] are worried that when they go back there will be no security, no health facilities, no accommodation for them. They don't know what their future in Afghanistan will be," Faramarzi said.
Afghans at home in Iran
Unlike in Pakistan, where Afghans mostly live in refugee camps, the majority of refugees in Iran are concentrated in urban areas dispersed throughout the country, with less than 5 percent living in camps. They have shelter and income opportunities. Their children go to Iranian schools and have access to health care.
Almost half of all Afghans in Iran are ethnic Hazaras, followed by Tajiks accounting for some 30 percent, UNHCR estimates. Both ethnic groups speak Dari, a Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan, and the Hazaras are predominantly Shia - factors making their stay in Shia Iran easier, aid workers say. Tehran province hosts the largest proportion of Iran's Afghan population - around 35 percent.
"We are hoping that the Afghan government and the Iranian government will find long-term solutions for the remaining Afghans," Faramarzi said.
At the 11th Tripartite Commission Meeting, held on 9 October 2006 in Geneva, the parties agreed that the days of mass return were over and innovative approaches were necessary to sustain the return momentum.
Coinciding with that, an agreement on joint projects was signed between the Iranian interior ministry and UNHCR. The projects are aimed at providing vocational training and educational and medical assistance to Afghan refugees in Iran.
"The idea is to teach Afghan refugees some skills that will enable them to generate income or be self-employed when they go back," Faramarzi said.
There have been reports of refugees who had repatriated to Afghanistan and then returned to Iran as labour migrants in search of jobs.
"Many of my friends who returned from Iran went back there to find work and provide for their families here in Afghanistan. Life is difficult here and there is not enough work, so you don't have any other choice than to go to Iran. It is as simple as that," Mohammad, an Afghan returnee in his 20s, told IRIN in Kabul.
According to UNHCR, there is a significant movement of people between Iran and Afghanistan, with most of those crossing the border being seasonal migrant workers.
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