"We're very close to the 400,000 target," the agency's spokeswoman, Laura O'Mahony, told IRIN from the Iranian capital, Tehran, on Wednesday. "We could well hit that figure next week."
According to UNHCR figures for Tuesday, 395,752 Afghans had voluntarily gone home since the joint programme with Tehran began on 9 April 2002. Of this number, 265,212 refugees - almost 38,000 families - had received assistance from the refugee agency, while another 130,540 had returned home spontaneously - without assistance.
As part of the voluntary programme, returnees register at one of 10 voluntary repatriation centres (VRCs) located throughout the country - including the cities of Mashhad, Zahedan, Qom, Esfahan, Kerman, Shiraz, Yazd and Arak, as well as two in Tehran. There they are provided with an assistance package, including a small monetary grant to facilitate their return.
But repatriation figures during the winter months have dropped due to the cold. On 5 December, IRIN reported that the total number of returnees stood at 362,949 - or some 30,000 less than Tuesday's figures.
"It's clear that the number of families repatriating this time of year has gone down, which is understandable," O'Mahony said. "Obviously people don't want to be making such a long journey during the winter with children," she explained, noting, however, with Nowruz, the Iranian new year, just one month away, those numbers were expected to increase as temperatures would by then also have risen.
Snowy conditions along the border area, particularly around Dogharun in eastern Khorasan Province, the main exit point for Afghans, had caused some convoys of returnees to postpone their departure by a few days, but the spokeswoman was quick to point out that people continued to return just the same. "Perhaps not every day, but every other day," she noted.
Meanwhile, at the secondary border crossing at Milak in southeastern Baluchestan-Sistan Province, the rise and fall of water levels in the Helmand river over the past few months had also resulted in some delays, but the effect had been minimal as Dogharun remained the primary border crossing along the 900-km-plus frontier.
Regarding UNHCR's planning figures for voluntary repatriation from Iran this year beginning in April, O'Mahoney said the agency hoped to facilitate the voluntary return of some 500,000 Afghans, or 100,000 more than last year's target.
According to figures provided last year to IRIN by the Iranian government's Interior Ministry's Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Office (BAFIA), the coordinating body for refugee affairs, some 2.3 million Afghans were officially living in the country, making Iran - alongside Pakistan - one of the two countries hosting the largest numbers of Afghan refugees.
[This Item is Delivered to the "Asia-English" Service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. For further information, free subscriptions, or to change your keywords, contact e-mail: IRIN@ocha.unon.org or Web: http://www.irinnews.org . If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Reposting by commercial sites requires written IRIN permission.]
Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003