Iran resumes repatriation to Afghanistan and Iraq
TEHRAN, Sept. 15 (UNHCR) - Hundreds of returning Afghan refugees who had been stranded on the Iranian side of the border since violence broke out over the weekend in the Afghan city of Herat resumed their journey home to Afghanistan today.
Also today, UNHCR Iran restarted voluntary repatriation convoys for Iraqi refugees returning to Iraq, after authorities in Iraq gave clearance to the operation suspended for a month for security reasons.
After spending three nights in UNHCR emergency shelter, 1,627 Afghans aboard 45 buses crossed this morning at Dogharoun, on Iran's eastern border, on their way to Herat, their first port of call within Afghanistan. By mid-afternoon, UNHCR received word that the returnees had travelled through Herat without incident.
UNHCR suspended its voluntary repatriation convoys to Afghanistan following attacks on U.N. offices, including UNHCR premises, in Herat on Sunday morning. UNHCR then suspended all travel in the province, for the safety of both staff and refugees. The decision to resume the repatriation today was taken following assurances by authorities in Afghanistan the returning refugees will be secured.
It was the second time in a month that UNHCR Iran was forced to suspend its voluntary repatriation programme to Afghanistan. In August, convoys were stopped for several days because of fighting in Herat province between supporters of former governor Ismail Khan and troops loyal to a rival regional leader. Attacks against UN and humanitarian staff have left 25 people killed in Afghanistan since early 2003.
More than one million Afghan refugees in Iran have returned to Afghanistan since the start of UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme in early 2002. This number represents half of the Afghan population that was in Iran before the fall of the Taleban in late 2001. During this summer season, there has been a sharp rise in the numbers of Afghans who are repatriating.
With such large numbers returning to Afghanistan, it is essential that conditions in the country are conducive to long-term reintegration.
Refugees are still able to go back in safety and dignity, however UNHCR is increasingly concerned at the the rising number of attacks against humanitarian staff in Afghanistan. Such staff play a key role in the reintegration of newly-returned Afghans, and it is crucial that they can work in all safety.
UNHCR Iran runs two voluntary repatriation operations. The office was also able to resume its convoys for Iraqi refugees, on the other side of the country, today. A convoy of 7 buses and 14 trucks, carrying 251 Iraqis, left the Ansar refugee camp, in Iran's south-eastern province early this morning. The convoy crossed at the Shalamsheh border crossing point and made its way to the southern Iraqi city of Basra. For security reasons, there had been no crossing through Shalamsheh since 12th August.
The repatriation of Iraqi refugees in Iran has been fraught with difficulties since its start in November 2003. Because of the situation in Iraq, each convoy is met at the border by Iraqi troops and is escorted to Basra. In the past few months, convoys had been frequently cancelled.
In such circumstances, UNHCR does not encourage Iraqi refugees to repatriate at this stage, but assists those who wish to return home nevertheless. Tens of thousands of people have crossed the border independently since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government last year, a crossing that can be dangerous since the Iran-Iraq border is heavily mined.
Around 8,000 people have repatriated to Iraq with UNHCR assistance since late last year. Most have gone back to the south of Iraq to rejoin relatives in and around Basra. After intensive negotiations with both the Iranian government and the authorities in Iraq, UNHCR was able to open a second border crossing point, at Haj Omran, in the north of Iran, in June. A few hundred Iraqi families, most of them of Kurdish origins, were able to cross back with UNHCR assistance through that border point during the early summer.
There has been no crossing through Haj Omra since early August, when UNHCR stopped all convoys to address the Iraqi authorities' concern regarding lack of housing for the returnees. Housing is a major issue in northern Iraq, with up to 20 per cent of people thought to lack adequate accommodation. UNHCR, in cooperation with other relief agencies, is running shelter-building programmes in 70 different locations in the northern governorates alone. UNHCR also supports the rehabilitation of public buildings, like schools and health clinics, as well as water projects and income-generating initiatives for local communities.