UNHCR protection chief launches fresh look at Afghan situation
TEHRAN, Islamic Republic of Iran, February 27 (UNHCR) - The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the difficulty in sustaining their lives back in their country is making Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan reluctant to return home.
The matter has been addressed by UNHCR's top protection official, Erika Feller, who wraps up a five-day mission to the Islamic Republic of Iran on Wednesday after travelling around the country to meet refugees and reflect with the Iranian authorities on the way forward in this new phase of the Afghan refugee situation.
"What has struck me during this visit is the variety of situations Afghan refugees are living in and the fact that the lack of security in Afghanistan is topmost in influencing their decisions to return home," Feller, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, said after visiting the south-eastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, the north-east city of Mashad near the border with Afghanistan, and the region surrounding Tehran.
There are some 920,000 refugees from Afghanistan in Iran. Many have been here for more than 20 years, fleeing successive waves of conflict in their home country from the 1979 Soviet invasion through to the 1996-2001 Taliban rule.
"During the peak of the refugee returns in 2004 there were up to 5,000 people a day going home to Afghanistan. In 2007, that number of refugees went home during the course of the year. So, we are at a turning point and have to reflect on the way forward with the Iranian authorities for those remaining here," Feller noted. More than 1.5 million Afghans have returned home since 2002, including 846,000 with help from UNHCR.
"Iran has hosted Afghan refugees on its territory for more than two decades and has a very solid track record in providing assistance. The refugees generally have access to basic health care and education and have not been under the threat of forced return," said Feller. "I heard many times how refugees feel part of this culture with a number being born here and knowing no other life," she added.
Refugees that Feller spoke to in various parts of the country listed their main concerns about returning home as lack of security, employment, education, health clinics and access to land in Afghanistan.
"Investing in education, the skills and capacity of the refugees is really important so they can make a real contribution back home in Afghanistan to rebuilding their country, or - if they go to a new country - in restarting their lives," said Feller, who met a number of refugee students keen to continue their education.
In October, Sistan-Baluchistan was declared a no-go area (NGA) for refugees and foreigners because of the criminality in the region, including drug smuggling, human trafficking and terrorism. Afghan refugees are concerned about facing a choice of relocation inside Iran, either to camps or cities, or going back to an untenable situation in Afghanistan.
"One by-product of this could be the possible loss of refugee status for people making this choice," said Feller.
Some 83,000 refugees live in Sistan-Baluchistan, including Mohamed Rustum, who resides with his family in the Shir Abad slum area of the provincial capital, Zahedan. "Why should I go back to Afghanistan? There I have neither earth nor sky," he told Feller. Mohamed said that, like many illiterate Afghans in Zahedan, he worked as a day labourer to support his family.
Under the NGA relocation scheme, some refugees, such as students or those with medical conditions, can move to cities. But the refugees fear losing the supportive environment they currently live in and are scared they will be unable to integrate into urban or camp life.
"They chose to live in this area because of its culture. They feel very comfortable here, like they are in Afghanistan. This idea of camps is very strange to them," said a UNHCR staff member in Zahedan. Some refugees said they felt unwelcome in the cities because they had no relatives there.
Afghan women refugees, who can work informally and move around freely in Iran, fear they would face restrictions in Afghanistan. A number of them work as housemaids in Iranian homes, something they could not do in Afghanistan.
Feller also discussed the refugees' concerns with the government refugee body - the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigration Affairs - and the challenges of the future. She hopes to visit Afghanistan and Pakistan in the coming months to get a full overview of the Afghan refugee situation.
The review of the Afghan situation is part of a UNHCR initiative to have a fresh look at various protracted refugee situations around the world.
By Jennifer Pagonis in Teheran, Islamic Republic of Iran