Afghan Nationals in Iran Hesitant to Return Home

The number of Afghan refugees voluntarily returning home from Iran has decreased dramatically over the past few months according to both Iranian and United Nations figures.
Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Saturday told reporters in Tehran that Iran was committed to expelling no more than one million registered Afghan refugees. But he made a distinction between legal and illegal refugees, adding that there is no international law concerning those who entered the country “illegally for economic” reasons. “However we still want them to be screened to see whether they need protection,” Guterres said.
According to figures provided by the head of Iran’s bureau of alien and foreign immigrants affairs (BAFIA), there are currently about 832,000 registered Afghans living in Iran with about 200,000 of their children who were born during the past six years.
Iran, Afghanistan and UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement for the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees six years ago, as Afghan refugees were fleeing their war-torn country by the thousands and crossing the western border into Iran.
According to Iranian figures only 88 Afghans have returned home voluntarily since the beginning of the current Iranian year that began in March, although UNHCR figures show that 242 Afghan refugees returned home from Iran in August 2008; but that number is still very low compared to the 63,000 that returned in August 2002.
“The decrease in repatriation is mostly due to social and economical problems and not as much to security,” Guterres said, adding, “Not that security is not a problem in Afghanistan but social issues such as education are a bigger concern to refugees.”
According to Iranian statistics, there are about 1.5 million Afghans living illegally within its borders. Tehran began to expel refuges who had illegally entered the country about a year ago, but it slowed the rate of deportation in the face of much criticism and after Kabul pled with Tehran that it could not cope with the rate of influx.
Iranian officials have expressed frustration with criticism levied against it for its deportation of illegal refugees, arguing that no European country has provided sanctuary to such a large number of refugees for so long, especially in the face of Iran’s failing economy and high unemployment rate.
“Confronting unregistered immigrants are based on internal laws of any nation and has nothing to do with international organizations or other nations,” said BAFIA chief Sayed Taghi Ghaemi. “We do not have figures on how many unregistered Afghans enter Iran every year,” Ghaemi told the news conference, adding that the numbers change according to the season and depending on the availability of jobs.
But according to the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Afghan Minister of Refugees and Returnees has rejected calls by the head of the UNHCR to increase the repatriation of Afghan refugees. Responding to calls from Guterres to increase the number of Afghans returning home, Shir Mohammad Etibari, told IRIN Sunday, “We don’t have the means to provide an encouraging environment for refugees to repatriate.”
The day before, Guterres told a news conference in Tehran, “It is very important to commit the Afghan government and to commit the international community to strongly invest in Afghanistan to create the conditions for these voluntary repatriations to be able to pick up again.”
Since 2002, one year after the fall of the Taliban-led government, the UNHCR has helped about 4.3 million Afghans return home—about 860,000 from Iran and 3.46 million from Pakistan—but there are still about one million in Iran and two million in Pakistan.
But as security began deteriorating with the resurgence of the Taliban in 2006, repatriation rates dropped. In addition, aid agencies and Kabul point to poor socio-economic conditions, high unemployment and the lack of basic services as discouraging refugees from returning home.
As a result, the repatriation drive virtually halted in September, particularly from Iran, adding strains to Iran’s already troubled economy.

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