UNHCR resumes Afghan return convoys from Iran amid ceasefire in Herat
HERAT, Afghanistan, Aug 23 (UNHCR) - Afghan refugees in Iran are able to return home again, after some 13,000 were stranded last week because of fighting around Herat in western Afghanistan. They have since left Iran's border area and Herat's transit centres following a ceasefire between the warring factions.
Herat is the first port of call in Afghanistan for refugees coming back from Iran, who receive a cash grant from UNHCR before travelling onwards to their final destination, in all parts of Afghanistan.
Last week, roads in and out of Herat were blocked because of fierce fighting between troops of provincial governor Ismail Khan and militias loyal to a rival leader. In searing summer temperatures, thousands of families, including small children, were left waiting for a lull in the hostilities, while UNHCR staff hurried to provide them with food, water and access to medical facilities.
The fighting prompted UNHCR to suspend its daily repatriation convoys from Iran last Tuesday, requiring the provision of emergency help to returnees stranded on both sides of the border. Some 9,500 of them were stuck in Herat in UNHCR transit camps designed to accommodate no more than 4,000, while another 3,500 had to wait on the Iranian side of the border.
UNHCR teams on the ground and the Iranian authorities worked throughout the night to provide the stranded returnees with emergency shelter. Fifty-six tents were erected near the border, while some 1,500 people were redirected to the nearby refugee camp of Torbat-e-Jam.
Since then, a ceasefire between the warring factions has enabled UNHCR to arrange safe passage to the north of Afghanistan for a first group on Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, the last groups of stranded returnees were able to travel to the southern provinces. Normal repatriation convoys from Iran to Afghanistan have now resumed.
The High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, has expressed concerns at the temporary disruption of the repatriation, and the impact of the fighting on returning Afghans. He stressed that those who have made the brave choice to return home deserve peace and security.
The High Commissioner also noted that the interruption in the repatriation exercise comes at a time when there has been a marked increase in the number of Afghans in Iran choosing to return home - up to 4,000 a day in recent weeks. UNHCR Iran expects that, within the next two weeks or so, it will reach the significant milestone of 1 million returns since the beginning of its voluntary repatriation programme for Afghan refugees in 2002.
Return convoys from Pakistan - which have brought home more than 2 million Afghan refugees - were not affected by last week's fighting.
The UN refugee agency has been running a voluntary repatriation programme for Afghan refugees since April 2002. Under this programme, returnees are entitled to free transport, medical assistance, mine-awareness training and a cash travel grant. UNHCR teams are located in several regions of Afghanistan to assist the returnees in the challenging task of rebuilding their lives within their homeland. In all, over 3.6 million Afghans have returned to their homeland from Iran and Pakistan since 2002.