Tying up legal loose ends helps Afghans return from Iran
TEHERAN, November 24 (UNHCR) - More than half of the Islamic Republic of Iran's approximately one million registered Afghan refugees have lived in the country for over 15 years.
They have built new lives for themselves and their families, have found jobs, rented apartments and made friends. Those who are thinking of returning to Afghanistan face the usual problems everyone encounters when moving abroad. For refugees, who may not be well versed in the workings of the Iranian court system, clearing up outstanding legal issues and finalizing contractual obligations can be especially difficult.
In order to help refugees deal with outstanding legal issues, the UN refugee agency and the Iranian government have been running Dispute Settlement Committees across Iran since May 2004. Following on the success of the existing centres, another five Dispute Settlement Committees have been opened this month in the cities of Arak, Yazd, Markazi, Hormozgan and Golestan.
Each committee comprises a judge, Iranian government and Afghan community representatives and a lawyer employed by UNHCR. They meet regularly to review cases brought to their attention. The advice is free of charge so that everyone, including refugees with little or no money, can benefit from the services on offer.
Sanai Zahed has been the Afghan community representative on the Tehran Dispute Settlement Committee since November 2004. He believes the committees are doing a very important job for the Afghan community in Iran and says more centres need to be opened to cope with the large number of cases that are being lodged.
"Most of the relevant problems referred to us are solved," he says, "and even in cases that are not of direct concern to the committee, we are usually able to provide advice and guidance. Often, the issue can be resolved within the community and there is no need to go to court."
The Dispute Settlement Committees handle only civil cases, not criminal ones. They focus on reaching amicable solutions through mediation, solving disputes in a way that is sensitive to Afghan cultural values. Many of the cases brought to the committees involve problems with landlords and employers, and the committees are especially useful for women, who often have difficulties accessing to the justice system.
Latifeh Sadat lost her husband earlier this year when he died after a fall at a construction site where he worked. She was left to bring up her two children on her own and decided it would be best for her family to return home to Afghanistan. Before leaving, however, she wanted some compensation for her husband's death - and help with her children's education.
"When I tried going to court on my own," she says, "no one accepted that the employer could be at fault. They did not even want to recognize that my husband was working there. After that, I did not know what to do and who to turn to. I thought I would never be able to get anything."
A few weeks later, Latifeh heard of the Tehran Dispute Committee and decided to go there to ask for help. She found that suddenly things changed once she had the backing of the committee.
"The lawyer managed to convince the judge, the hospital and the legal doctors that it was the employer's mistake. As a result I received compensation and now I will be able to repatriate, and I am confident that I can start again in Afghanistan with my children."
"The Dispute Settlement Committees were initially established to help facilitate the voluntary repatriation of registered Afghan refugees with pending legal cases", explains Sten Bronee, UNHCR's Representative in Iran. "Their added value is that they also offer an opportunity for continued dialogue and exchange between the Iranian and the Afghan community in Iran"
Some 253,000 Afghans have repatriated from Iran this year, bringing to over 1.5 million the total number of refugees who have left the country to return home to Afghanistan since the start of UNHCR's voluntary repatriation operation in the spring of 2002.
By Safak Pavey in Teheran, Iran
with Astrid van Genderen Stort in Geneva