Lubbers' visit a "good omen" for Afghanistan
HERAT, Afghanistan, April 15 (UNHCR) - High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers made a splash in the western Afghan city of Herat on Monday as he arrived amid heavy rain in what local governor Ismail Khan called a "good omen."
"We are receiving you on a day full of rain, which is a good sign," said Khan, whose region has been devastated by five years of drought. Khan assured Lubbers that the local authorities would do all they could to help Afghans returning from Iran, saying their return was crucial to get the parched and war-devastated region back on its feet.
Later in the day, Lubbers was scheduled to fly to the Afghan capital of Kabul to meet with the head of Afghanistan's Interim Authority, Hamid Karzai. UNHCR has been given the daunting task of being the lead agency to help millions of Afghans uprooted by decades of civil war to return to their homes.
On Sunday, Lubbers ended his two-day visit to Iran by walking into Afghanistan alongside some 1,000 Afghan refugees heading homewards under a new UNHCR repatriation initiative. At the Islam Qala transit centre in western Afghanistan, 30-year-old Abdullah Ahmed, who had fled to Iran with his parents 15 years ago, told Lubbers that coming home was like being "born again."
"I'm now the High Commissioner for Returnees," Lubbers told waiting journalists as Afghans trudged across the rain-soaked frontier to board trucks hired by the International Organization for Migration for their journey to Herat and their home provinces.
The border crossing is where UNHCR expects the majority of Iran's 1.5 million Afghan refugees to cross homewards over the next few years as the situation stabilises in their homeland.
This year, UNHCR and the Iranian government plan to help 400,000 Afghan refugees return home under what Lubbers called a "managed" repatriation. Under a landmark programme signed between the Iranian and Afghan governments and UNHCR on April 3, more than 2,100 Afghans have crossed the border since the operation started on April 9. Another 1,000 were expected to cross on Monday.
Meeting the programme's targets depends upon conditions inside Afghanistan, Lubbers said. Some parts of the country are affected by continuing insecurity, with open fighting between rival groups near Kabul and along the western frontier with Iran, at Zaranj. UNHCR suspended repatriation movements in the Zaranj area last Tuesday, pending security improvements.
The economic situation in Afghanistan is also a concern for many refugees, particularly those leaving Iran who learned useful skills while in exile and who are leaving jobs to go home to an uncertain future. Unlike many asylum countries, Iran permits Afghan refugees to live amid the local population and gives them free access to medical care and schooling.
"I don't know how many will return home, that depends on the potential for earning a living in Afghanistan," Lubbers said in a press conference. He said UNHCR was spending some $20 million a month on repatriation and rehabilitation programmes in Afghanistan and refugee assistance projects in neighbouring countries, money that was having an economic effect in the region, particularly in Afghanistan.
Before beginning a four-day visit to Afghanistan, the High Commissioner visited Ansar camp in Dogharoun, Iran. This is where registered Afghan returnees arrive in government-chartered buses, receive final briefings on the danger posed by landmines, get any necessary inoculations and surrender their refugee identity cards to officials of UNHCR's partner agency in Iran, the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA).
At the Ansar site, Lubbers saw dozens of trucks loaded with the Afghans' personal belongings, including refrigerators, televisions and video players that they purchased with money earned during their exile in Iran.
Shortly after arriving in Iran on Saturday in the first stage of his three-nation tour that will end in Pakistan on April 20, Lubbers visited the Soleimankhani Voluntary Repatriation Centre on the outskirts of Tehran.
He saw some 2,000 Afghan refugees queuing up to register under the voluntary repatriation programme. Soleimankhani is the largest of nine registration centres that have been established throughout Iran by BAFIA with UNHCR funding.
Lubbers told journalists that UNHCR would open a second facility in Tehran to cope with demand and ease the pressure on Soleimankhani. He said the fact that thousands of Afghans were crowding the site despite the downpour was a sign of their willingness to return home. "This indicates an eagerness," he said, dispelling suggestions that Afghans are being forced back.
The High Commissioner said that in his meetings with Iranian officials, he discussed ending the deportation of Afghan refugees. But he cautioned that people who were in the country illegally were exposing themselves to round-ups and encouraged Afghans to participate in the new repatriation initiative.
During his day-long visit to the Iranian capital on Saturday, Lubbers met with President Mohammed Khatami, Minister of Interior Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, along with other senior Iranian officials.