Tripartite meeting agrees to look at new ways to encourage returns from Iran
GENEVA, October 10 (UNHCR) - Iran, Afghanistan and UNHCR on Tuesday wrapped up a two-day meeting on voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan with agreement to look at new ways to encourage refugees to return home amid falling numbers of returnees from Iran.
The participants at the 11th Tripartite Commission meeting in Geneva also agreed to look more closely at the circumstances of the estimated 920,000 Afghans remaining in neighbouring Iran.
High Commissioner António Guterres, presiding over Monday's opening with Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi and Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation Mohammad Akbar Akbar, noted that repatriation to Afghanistan had slowed down significantly this year after four years of unprecedented return figures.
"We remain committed to making return and reintegration of Afghanistan sustainable, but we must also be realistic in our expectations. Afghanistan still faces many difficulties. Moreover, the majority of the remaining 920,000 Afghans in Iran have been there 20 years or more. We must look more closely into their conditions and their situation to understand how best to support voluntary repatriation in future," he said.
Noting new political challenges in the region, the High Commissioner also reassured his counterparts of UNHCR's continuing engagement. He expressed his satisfaction at the good relations between Afghanistan and Iran and the constructive role that these would play in finding practical solutions to the longstanding refugee situation and issues such as irregular migration.
Pour-Mohammadi also noted the falling return figures over the past year. "Given the fact that we still have nearly one million registered Afghans in Iran, we need to reinforce and strengthen progress towards the repatriation and reintegration objectives agreed within the Tripartite Commission," he said.
He urged the international community "to live up to its promises of investing in the reconstruction of Afghanistan" so as to enhance the prospects for higher return figures in the future.
High Commissioner Guterres and Iran's Pour-Mohammadi also held separate bilateral talks on repatriation challenges, reintegration needs inside Afghanistan, protection concerns, and assistance interventions.
In a statement issued after this meeting, the two sides agreed to jointly look at ways to "mobilise additional financial assistance for enhancing voluntary repatriation and reintegration in Afghanistan and for providing essential assistance to the remaining registered Afghan refugees and displaced persons in Iran, in particular the most vulnerable." They also pledged to intensify high-level consultations, including Afghanistan.
An agreement was signed for joint assistance projects aimed at improving skills through vocational training programmes and providing education and medical assistance for the remaining registered Afghans in Iran.
"This joint project, as well as other initiatives undertaken bilaterally by the presidents of Iran and Afghanistan - which allow skilled Afghans to return while their families can stay legally in Iran for a certain period of time - are excellent examples of how both countries are adapting to new challenges," said Guterres. "These initiatives ... will allow some to plan their future better and make voluntary returns more sustainable."
Aside from the 920,000 registered Afghan refugees, Iran also hosts 54,000 Iraqis. Since 2002 more than 1.5 million Afghans have returned home from Iran, 850,000 with UNHCR's assistance. An additional 200,000 Iraqis have also been repatriated since the 2003 change of regime in Iraq. This year's assisted returns from Iran have been the lowest in years - just over 4,500 by September. Some 155,000 Afghans have returned home spontaneously outside the voluntary repatriation framework.
By Astrid van Genderen Stort in Geneva