Turkmenistan: Afghans going home
"The vast majority of the persons currently returning to Afghanistan from Turkmenistan are doing so under the auspices of UNHCR [office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]," the agency's country representative, Ruvendrini Menikdiwela, told IRIN from the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, on Thursday. While only 1,800 had formally registered with the agency, planning figures were for some 6,000 to potentially register for assistance, she explained.
Most of them are of Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara and Turkmen ethnicity, and originate from areas in and around the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif and the western city of Herat. Following the events of 11 September, there was heightened concern that up to 50,000 might attempt to cross the 744-km frontier - prompting strong contingency planning by the UN in Ashgabat.
But, like Pakistan and Iran - which had feared a possible arrival of 400,000 respectively - the influx into Turkmenistan never materialised. Moreover, many of those who did enter the country, are now seeking to return under the UNHCR's assistance programme there.
Menikdiwela said returnees were being provided with US $80 per person for their transport and other travel-related costs by UNHCR. "The office does not provide them with transport to the border or to their areas of origin within Afghanistan since they prefer to make their own way there," she noted, adding, however, that UNHCR was assisting them with all administrative matters relating to their return - including the procuring of exit visas from Turkmenistan and travel documents from the Afghan embassy in Ashgabat.
"Once in Afghanistan, they are entitled to the same assistance from UNHCR as all other returnees," she said.
As part of the process in Turkmenistan, when Afghans first communicate their decision to return to UNHCR, they are interviewed to assess the voluntary nature of the decision. In line with the procedure established in all the asylum countries by UNHCR, the applicants are also required to complete voluntary repatriation forms (VRFs), which formally attest to the voluntariness of their decision to return. Copies of these VRFs are shared with the UNHCR's sub-offices in the areas of origin, in order to ensure and facilitate eventual assistance to, and monitoring of, these people.
Asked what the main determining factors were for return, Menikdiwela listed political stability in the areas of origin, possibilities of employment, education and the availability of land for cultivation. "This explains the relatively low - but steady - rate of return," she maintained.
As for their current status in this Central Asian country of 4.5 million, she said UNHCR issued Afghan refugees with certificates, which were respected by the Turkmen authorities, thereby providing effective protection against forced return. Moreover, as most were of Turkmen ethnicity, this further facilitated their stay in the country, she explained.
Afghan refugees in Turkmenistan were primarily found in the capital city and in the southeastern Lebap Province. Those with an urban background were found in the former and in Lebap's provincial capital of Turkmenabad, while those with a rural background were found in settlements such as Teze Yut - also in Lebap Province - where they had been provided with plots of land for residence/cultivation by the Turkmen authorities, Menikdiwela explained.
Meanwhile, UNHCR confirmed on Wednesday that more than 350,000 Afghans had gone home from Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in less than two months. The vast majority - 327,000 - were from Pakistan since it began its repatriation drive on 1 March, followed by Iran with 17,000, after it launched a similar exercise with UNHCR on 9 April.
More than 3.7 million refugees have fled war- and drought-ravaged Afghanistan over the past two decades, the bulk of them to Pakistan and Iran. Another 1.2 million Afghans were forced to flee their homes for safety elsewhere in the country. UNHCR hopes to assist 800,000 refugees return home this year, along with some 400,000 internally displaced persons.
Turkmenistan hosts more than 14,000 refugees today, the vast majority from neighbouring Tajikistan.
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