Lubbers discusses repatriation with Iranian government and Afghan refugees
TEHRAN, April 14 (UNHCR) - On the second day of his visit to Iran, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers had talks on Wednesday with Iran's Vice-President Mohammad Reza Aref about the repatriation of Afghan refugees and related issues.
After meetings the previous day with Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, and Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Saftar Hosseini, Lubbers continued his in-depth discussions about the voluntary repatriation programme for Afghans which is scheduled to continue in its current form into 2005, and possible future developments after that date. In addition to his meeting with the Vice-President, he was scheduled to meet with the Interior Minister, Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, later in the day.
In all his talks, Lubbers has stressed the importance UNHCR places on the continuation of voluntary repatriation this year, while still bearing in mind the difficulties - including security problems - that are still affecting some parts of Afghanistan.
During the course of 2004, he said, UNHCR is planning to return up to half a million Afghans from Iran. Over 400,000 have returned so far from Iran, with UNHCR assistance, since the beginning of 2002.
Other issues such as the deportation of Afghans who do not have refugee status were also discussed, and UNHCR has welcomed the fact that it is now able to have access to deportees in order to ascertain that they do indeed not face any protection difficulties back home in Afghanistan.
Lubbers also had a two-hour meeting with ten Afghan community leaders, including four women, drawn from Afghan refugee populations in all Iranian provinces, and representing all four of Afghanistan's main ethnic groups - Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.
The refugee leaders told the High Commissioner of their concerns about the availability of shelter and jobs for returnees. Security seemed to be less of a concern than it is for some of the refugees in Pakistan, perhaps reflecting the differences in the security situation in the western and central parts of Afghanistan - from where the majority of refugees in Iran originate.
The Afghan women present at the meeting clearly had mixed feelings about the possibility of returning to their homeland.
"Iran has given us women many opportunities such as access to education, employment and a certain independence," said one of the women present. "Many of us are uncertain about whether we will have the same conditions when we return."
However, another woman told the High Commissioner a story of a young, educated female relative who had gone home, determined to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Upon arrival, she had knelt down and kissed the earth of the country she had not set eyes on for so many years. Suddenly there was a gust of wind, and dust was blown into her face. "What are you doing to me, my country?" she exclaimed. However, she was undeterred and remained "to fight for her rights and to educate the men."
In response, Lubbers acknowledged that the situation remains difficult for women in some parts of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, he stressed the important contribution women returnees can make to the rebuilding and modernization of Afghanistan.
It has long been recognized that returning refugees can be an important engine of change, and there is already plenty of evidence to suggest that the different social attitudes that have developed among the refugees in Iran and Pakistan, in particular towards the education of girls, has had a positive impact on the attitudes of the traditionally highly conservative rural population inside Afghanistan.
On Thursday, Lubbers will fly into Afghanistan where he will remain until Sunday. He will then proceed to Pakistan on the last leg of his nine-day, three-nation mission.