Afghan refugees to resolve disputes before leaving Iran
TEHRAN, Iran, May 5 (UNHCR) - Afghan refugees in Iran have started receiving a new form of repatriation assistance - not in the form of a cash grant, relief aid or transport home, but through the provision of legal aid to settle disputes before they end years of exile.
On Monday, the UN refugee agency and Iran's Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) opened the first Dispute Settlement Committee for Afghan refugees in the Iranian capital, Tehran. By the end of this month, six more committees will be set up in other parts of the country - in Mashad, Zahedan, Kerman, Isfahan, Qom and Shiraz.
"UNHCR hopes that the committees will be able to help Afghan refugees who wish to repatriate but cannot go back because of minor legal disputes in Iran," Henrik Nordentoft, Deputy Representative of UNHCR in Iran, said at the opening ceremony on Monday.
These legal disputes include problems with rental agreements with landlords, or back payment of salaries with employers in Iran, and can considerably delay the return of Afghans to their country.
Each committee comprises a judge, a BAFIA delegate, an Afghan community representative and a UNHCR legal person, who will meet once a week to review the cases brought to their attention. A BAFIA representative on Monday said that more than 300 people have already registered in Tehran in the few days before the official opening.
"A lot of them have disputes with their landlords," he said. "They cannot get back their deposit or the rent they paid in advance. We have already called some of the landlords, and the response has been very positive. They all said they wanted to cooperate."
Often, Afghan refugees are worried about approaching the Iranian court system, which they are not familiar with. The Dispute Settlement Committees will offer their services free of charge, and will deal only with civil cases, not criminal ones. They will focus on reaching amicable solutions through mediation, solving disputes in a manner that is sensitive to the values of Afghan culture. The programme will be especially helpful for vulnerable Afghans, such as women and the elderly, who often have very little money and no access to the court system.
"This is an excellent example of the many joint projects between UNHCR and BAFIA to help facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees in Iran, which is the focus of our work this year," said UNHCR's Nordentoft.
Voluntary repatriation is governed by a tripartite agreement between Iran, Afghanistan and UNHCR that expires in March 2005. More than 700,000 Afghans have voluntarily returned from Iran to Afghanistan since this agreement was signed in April 2002.
Iran hosts some 2 million Afghans, of whom some 800,000 are considered refugees.