TEHRAN, 27 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - The Director-General of the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) has warned that Iran would not extend its agreement with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the government of Afghanistan for the voluntary repatriation of Afghans in Iran.
The current agreement, signed on 28 June, will expire at the end of the Iranian calendar year in March 2006.
"If the Afghans currently residing in Iran do not voluntarily return home under the current repatriation programme, they will have to leave the country in the coming year while being subject to some limitations," Ahmad Hosseini was quoted as saying by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) on Monday.
The agreement, known as the Joint Programme, underlines the voluntary nature of the repatriation operation and also ensures the provision of basic support and assistance during the process including transportation, medical facilities and customs procedures.
Hosseini said that Iran would provide assistance to Afghans who had returned to their homeland, noting that 20 new townships were expected to be constructed by the Afghan government.
"Iran has announced that it will provide the Afghan refugees returning from Iran to reside in the new townships with the required services," he reportedly said.
However, IRNA also reported that Hosseini said Afghans choosing to remain in Iran after the agreement expired faced new financial measures.
"Any Afghan refugee intending to leave the country next year, will not only have to undergo some limitations, such as paying tuition for their children studying at school, but will have to pay tax for urban services and the expenses of their repatriation," he said.
But Shafak Pavey, UNHCR external relations and public information officer, said that the UN refugee agency was not alarmed by Hosseini's announcement and believed Iran would extend the tripartite agreement to continue helping Afghan refugees repatriate to their homeland.
"Every year we receive this kind of announcement from the government," she said.
"However, we do expect it to be renewed again -- this statement doesn't mean it won't go to another year of an agreement between UNHCR, the Iranian government and the Afghan government. We believe in the generosity and hospitality of this country."
There are currently some 950,000 registered Afghan refugees remaining in Iran, the lowest number in almost 20 years. Pavey warned that the repatriation of the remaining Afghans will take time.
"Some Afghans have been living in Iran for over 15 years, some have even been born in Iran and if we put ourselves in the shoes of refugees living in a country for so long, of course a certain level of integration takes place," she said.
At its height, Iran was home to over 3 million Afghan refugees. Unlike other refugee populations in the region, the majority of Afghans in Iran do not live in refugee camps but are fully integrated members of society.
UNHCR expects 200,000 Afghans to voluntarily return to Afghanistan this year. Since the launch of the Joint Programme in 2002, some 1.3 million Afghan refugees have returned voluntarily from Iran with 780,000 assisted by UNHCR. Around 520,000 have returned spontaneously.
Sixty percent of the Afghan refugee population has been living in Iran for at least 15 years. However, Tehran has recently stepped up efforts to encourage Afghans to return home. Such measures include a reduction of government services, the introduction of school fees for Afghan children and a ban on Afghans settling in a number of Iranian provinces.
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