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Iran, Afghanistan and UNHCR sign new agreement on Afghan returns

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TEHRAN, Iran, June 17 (UNHCR) - This week is an important one for refugees in Iran: on Friday, they will be celebrating World Refugee Day, an especially significant date in a country that hosts some two million refugees. And earlier in the week, UNHCR signed an agreement that will give hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in Iran a chance to return home.
On Monday, the governments of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Afghanistan signed a joint agreement with UNHCR on the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees. The Afghan delegation was headed by Mohammad Naeem Ghiaci, the Deputy Minister of Repatriation and Returnees' Affairs, while the Iranian government was represented by Ahmad Hosseini, Advisor to Iran's Interior Minister and Director General of the Bureau for Alien and Foreign Immigrant Affairs. Philippe Lavanchy, UNHCR Representative in Tehran, signed of behalf of the High Commissioner.

The joint programme is a continuation of last year's agreement between the three parties to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees in Iran.

According to the government in Tehran, there are almost 1.9 million Afghan refugees living in Iran. But this number is now decreasing. The fall of the Taleban in Afghanistan 18 months ago opened the gates for Afghan refugees - who had fled their country during decades of violent and almost incessant conflict - to go home at last. Grasping this unique opportunity, UNHCR worked closely with both the Afghan and Iranian authorities to devise a programme that would help the many Afghans wanting to repatriate. The first joint programme came out of these negotiations.

In the past 12 months, more than 400,000 Afghan refugees have chosen to leave Iran for home. The numbers soared during the summer months of July and August 2002. At that time, UNHCR teams helped thousands of people every day with medical assistance and free transport from 10 voluntary repatriation centres located throughout Iran to the border crossing-point of Dogharoun.

Once in Afghanistan, returnees receive financial assistance for onward travel to their final destination. On the ground, UNHCR teams run local programmes to help returnees to start their life again in a country that many left years, if not decades ago. Returnees are supplied with shelter-building kits, working tools and food aid from the UN World Food Programme. It is expected that up to 60,000 shelter units and 40,000 wells will be built or made usable again this year in co-operation with Afghanistan's Ministry for Refugees and Repatriation and the Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development.

The new joint programme stresses the voluntary nature of the repatriation process, and grants UNHCR free access to refugees, both in Iran and upon their return in Afghanistan. This repatriation process is an important one for both governments: for Afghanistan it is indeed part of the continuing process of stabilisation and reconstruction that started last year with the setting up of the transitional government.

Iran, Afghanistan and UNHCR hope that half a million Afghans will take advantage of the assistance package on offer before the end of March 2004.

"It is crucial that the repatriation programme continues, and that means not just transporting people back home, but also supporting them in their efforts to reintegrate and rebuild their home country," said UNHCR's Lavanchy. "Much has been done already, but many more people still need to be helped and for this we need funds and the sustained financial commitment of the international community, at a time when so many other crises are competing for the world's attention."

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