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Afghan Refugees Begin Returning Home from Iran - 2002-04-09

The first group of Afghan refugees who had fled to Iran has started returning home. The United Nations Refugee Agency transported 146 people on Tuesday and believes as many as 400,000 Afghan refugees will come home from Iran this year. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) acknowledges that the repatriation program has gotten off to a slow start. But UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski says the agency expects the rate of returning refugees to pick up to as many as 1,600 Afghans daily, six days a week.

"Iran hosts more than 1.5 million Afghan refugees," said Mr. Janowski. "We also had a tentative plan, as you remember, to have 400,000 come back from Pakistan, but it looks as half of that yearly number has already gone back. We will see how things go with Iran."

Pakistan is home to about two million Afghan refugees. Many fled Afghanistan more than two decades ago because of war, drought and poverty.

The unsettled situation in the country, is given as the reason the repatriation started with just a trickle of returnees. Mr. Janowski says plans to transport the refugees to Nimruz province, in Afghanistan, had to be changed because of fighting around the area. He says the UNHCR was forced to use the crossing point at Islam Qala, which is west of Herat. He adds that security problems required a temporary halt to repatriation from Pakistan "because of a bomb attack in the Jalalabad area and protests from poppy farmers in that area....This resulted in a backlog building up in our registration point in Pakistan, with some 18,000 people waiting there to be registered."

Mr. Janowski says Afghan refugees in Iran can register for repatriation at any of nine centers, set up throughout the country. After that, they will be transported to the border, where they will be briefed about the danger of landmines and security conditions inside Afghanistan. Then they will be transported by bus to the provincial capital of their choice. Families returning from Iran are given supplies including plastic tarpaulins, stoves and blankets, as well as clothes, some cash and food to help them get started in their new lives back home.

The return of the refugees from Iran is the result of a landmark deal struck last week by Iran, Afghanistan and the United Nations refugee agency.