TEHRAN, 9 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - A new tripartite agreement between Iran, Afghanistan and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been agreed in principle. The agreement has yet to be signed by Iran, the UNHCR's newly appointed Representative in Tehran, Sten Bronee, told IRIN in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on Thursday.
UNHCR, Afghanistan and Iran's Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) negotiated changes to the agreement, which expired at the end of the Iranian calendar year, on 21 March.
"We were in negotiations with BAFIA on elements of the agreement to make sure it strengthens the voluntary character of the repatriation of Afghans," Bronee said.
The repatriation process in Iran takes place within the framework of the tripartite agreement, known as the Joint Programme. The main aims of the Joint Programme are to ensure that repatriation of all Afghan refugees who are registered with the Iranian authorities is voluntary, takes place with dignity and is bolstered by assistance towards reintegration once in Afghanistan.
Iran has been host to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. At its peak, over 3 million Afghans were living in the country. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 there has been a steady exodus of Afghans returning to their homeland. For many of the young, it is a journey to a country they have never seen.
UNHCR has been working with the Iranian government on a voluntary repatriation programme. As part of the process, Afghans are interviewed to ensure repatriation is voluntary, they are given basic provisions for when they arrive in Afghanistan and they are provided with transport to the border, where they also have access to medical facilities.
Since the first tripartite agreement in April 2002, 1.2 million Afghans have voluntarily returned to their homeland and today some 900,000 Afghan refugees still remain in Iran.
However, recently the Iranian government has stepped up efforts to ensure Afghans go home. Many of them now have to pay for education and are also experiencing a reduction in government services.
"We don't believe these measures are in keeping with the spirit of the tripartite agreement," Bronee told IRIN. "Part of the negotiation of the renewal of the tripartite agreement was to try to address in a positive spirit some of the difficulties that were encountered last year," he said.
Some positive measures have been introduced by Tehran recently, including courts especially set up to help Afghans solve disputes, which are delaying their departure. These disputes are often over money owed to them, either by employers or private landlords.
Many schools are sympathetic to the plight of Afghans and do not charge full rates. There is even a school for street children, many of whom are Afghans, which has been set up by an Iranian charity.
However, director general of BAFIA, Ahmad Hosseini, reportedly said the government intended to introduce a municipal tax of up to US $164 on Afghans in the country.
"We haven't been approached by the government on this and have learned about it through the media," Bronee said. "I assume it does not cover Afghans who are registered as refugees. I do not believe they will impose taxes on registered refugees without prior consultation and it would be a strong and unreasonable move to introduce," he added.
Hosseini was also reported as saying that UNHCR had cut medical aid to Afghans. Bronee confirmed that UNHCR had indeed reduced medical assistance but that the cuts were confined to Afghans living in only one of Iran's seven refugee camps.
"The Afghan camp population is some 33,000 out of some 900,000 registered Afghans, so the reduction of medical facilities to those in camps has only affected a very small proportion of Afghans," Bronee explained.
Bronee said that despite the cuts, which were initially imposed to encourage repatriation, the majority of returnees were not currently from the refugee camps. He also said that as Afghans living in refugee camps came under the administration of the Iranian government and they were assisted accordingly.
The government has recently banned Afghans from settling in certain provinces, for security reasons. UNHCR has temporarily curtailed assistance to returning refugees in one such area, Zabol, in the southeastern province of Zahedan. Here Afghans are not allowed to reside near the border and police have the power to arrest those who do so. UNHCR is in negotiation with BAFIA to offer Afghans in this predicament the opportunity to move elsewhere.
"UNHCR wants a relocation option for those Afghans who do not yet feel ready to go back. The modalities for the relocation option have not yet been fully discussed, hence it is better to suspend repatriation here until refugees have full knowledge of both options," said Bronee.
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