Iranian, Afghan officials agree to boost refugee returns

Iranian and Afghan officials meeting together with UNHCR in Kabul have agreed on measures to help increase the return of refugees from Iran.

Young Afghan refugees at Kalkali settlement in Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province.   © UNHCR/A.Jamal

KABUL, Afghanistan, April 29 (UNHCR) - Iranian officials agreed in a meeting with the Afghan government on Wednesday on measures to boost the repatriation of Afghan refugees back to their homeland, including plans for Afghan officials and recent returnees to meet with refugees in Iran, additional transport capacity, and a waiver of fees for poor refugees seeking to leave.

The discussions took place under the auspices of the April 2002 tripartite agreement on repatriation signed by the two governments and UNHCR. Some 700,000 Afghans have returned from Iran since the agreement was signed, including 50,000 so far this year.

Afghanistan's Deputy Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Mohammad Naim Ghiacy, hosted the discussions. It was the third meeting of the Tripartite Commission which last met in March 2003 to review the pace of the repatriation effort and options to help increase returns.

Iran's delegation at the Kabul talks was led by Ahmed Hosseini, adviser to the Minister of Interior and Director-General of Iran's Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigration Affairs (BAFIA). UNHCR was represented by Filippo Grandi and Philippe Lavanchy, the agency's country directors for Afghanistan and Iran respectively.

During the meeting, the governments reaffirmed their commitment on the voluntary character of the repatriation of Afghans as described in the Joint Programme between the UN refugee agency and the Iranian government that covers Afghans registered by Iran and who can benefit from UNHCR's repatriation assistance.

The parties agreed that go-and-talk missions would be organised so that Afghan officials and recent returnees could regularly go to Iran to tell refugees about conditions in their homeland.

On an experimental basis, a delegation led by the governor of central Afghanistan's Bamyan province undertook one such visit to Iran last January. That trial mission met with Afghan professionals, workers and other exiles as part of an effort to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Afghans to the centre of the country, which is thought to be one of Afghanistan's safest areas.

Other measures agreed at the Kabul meeting included boosting the transport capacity for Afghans returning from Iran, and a waiver of fees levied by BAFIA's provincial offices that have impeded the return of some poor refugees.

Afghanistan's officials agreed on the need to allocate land to returnees from Iran. UNHCR and Iran also announced the establishment of Dispute Settlement Committees in several key locations around the country to help resolve legal obstacles to refugee return.

The parties also announced that UNHCR would have access to Afghans being deported via Iran's southern Milak crossing point, as is already the case for individuals being sent back over the main Dogharoun exit point. They also pledged their support for the inclusion of Iran's Afghan refugees in their country's forthcoming national elections.

Participants in the discussions also acknowledged the need to continue their consultations on the search for solutions for Afghans in Iran beyond the March 2005 expiration of the joint repatriation initiative. The next meeting of the tripartite commission will take place in Geneva this September under the chairmanship of the UN refugee agency.

The Islamic Republic of Iran hosts some 2 million Afghans, of whom some 800,000 are considered refugees.