Spontaneous returns of Afghan refugees continue

The number of Afghan refugees spontaneously leaving Iran for home has increased following a significant decline in the second half of December. Officials of the office of the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Iran confirmed on Thursday that since the start of this year, over 2,500 had returned to Afghanistan.

"The number of spontaneous returnees to Afghanistan from Iran has increased after a major drop in the last two weeks of December," a UNHCR spokesman, Mohammad Nouri, told IRIN from the capital, Tehran. While initially 1,300 people a day during the first two weeks of December were returning, by the end of the month that figure dropped to around 300. With the advent of the new year, however, those numbers rebounded with 954 Afghans returning on Tuesday and another 1,559 on Wednesday, Nouri explained.

Asked whether this represented any type of new trend, he replied: "Although we have seen an increase, it is impossible to predict whether this will continue."

According to UNHCR, the total number of spontaneous (unassisted) returnees from Iran for the year 2001 was 140,373. This was a dramatic jump from the previous year, in which only 50,000 spontaneously made the move from mid-July through December 2000.

Afghans have been spontaneously returning since mid-July of that year, following the inception of a joint volunteer repatriation programme between UNHCR and the Tehran government in April. During the programme some 134,000 received a UNHCR assistance package to go back, bringing to over 184,000 the total number of returnees (including the 50,000 spontaneous returnees) for the year 2000.

"The spontaneous returnees were those who did not want to wait for assistance and wanted to go back immediately," Nouri said. Originally planned to last for six months, the joint repatriation programme was later extended by three months and ended on 31 December 2000. "In 2001, we didn't have the joint programme, but the spontaneous returns to Afghanistan continued and, in fact, increased," he said.

While the Iranian Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants' Affairs supplies such returnees with travel documents and customs facilitation, they receive no assistance from UNHCR or the Iranian government. The refugee agency, however, tries to verify the voluntary nature of the returns, and returnees are given some brief training in mine awareness at the Iranian border crossing of Dogharun.

Last week, UNHCR reopened its office in the Afghan town of Eslam Qalah, near Dogharun, to monitor returns from Iran. "This will allow us to better monitor the situation on the ground inside Afghanistan," Nouri said. Since the fall of the Taliban, over 45,000 Afghans, originally from the north of Afghanistan, have returned from Iran through the Dogharun crossing point, adjacent to Eslam Qalah.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, a UNHCR spokeswoman, Fatoumata Kaba, said most of these returning Afghans were Tajiks and persons between the ages of 18 and 55. She noted, however, that more Pashtuns - the ethnic group to which most of the Taliban belong - were also returning.

Some 58 percent of returnees interviewed by UNHCR said they planned to live in the western Afghan city of Herat, most of them to work in agriculture. Asked if they intended remaining in Afghanistan, the interviewees said that would depend on the employment and security situations in the country, Kaba explained.

Meanwhile, UNHCR has confirmed that its third convoy of humanitarian assistance, comprising 10 trucks, left the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad for Afghanistan on Tuesday night. According to Nouri, the convoy, carrying non-food related and winter items, left Dogharun on Wednesday, bound for Herat. "We are awaiting confirmation of its arrival," he added.

Iran hosts some two million Afghan refugees today, the vast majority of whom have been assimilated into Iranian society.