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UNHCR Offers Help to Afghan Refugees in Iran - 2002-08-12

The United Nations refugee agency says it is ready to assist Afghan refugees in Iran who believe they cannot return home at this time.

UNHCR says up to 2,500 Afghan refugees return home each day from Iran. But it says there are still many Afghans who do not wish to go back home at this time, even though pressure is mounting on them to make decisions about repatriation.

Iran's interior ministry said on Sunday it is setting a new deadline, August 27, for unregistered Afghan refugees to go home. It said any Afghan failing to register for repatriation would not be considered a refugee and would risk arrest.

Iran hosts about 1.5 million Afghan refugees who fled conflict during the past 23 years.

But UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler says the refugee agency does not want to see any Afghans deported from Iran if they have a legitimate asylum claim.

"UNHCR would like to see Afghans go home when they are ready to go home," he said. "We would not like to see anyone forced back to their country. Nevertheless, earlier this year, we did agree with the Iranian authorities at a meeting at the Palais des Nations here in Geneva that up to 400,000 people could go back this year. We would like to see those people go back in safety and dignity."

Mr. Kessler says the refugee agency has a verbal understanding with Iranian authorities to help screen asylum claims made by Afghan refugees.

"We hope and believe it still stands," he said. "UNHCR is ready to help the Iranians to screen cases of Afghans coming forward who believe they should be permitted to remain in asylum and we stand ready to help the authorities review all those cases."

Mr. Kessler says repatriations to Afghanistan will be lasting only if the Afghans have something to return to. That means jobs must be available and reconstruction must seriously be underway. He says many Afghans have skills acquired in Iran from informal work in construction and farming to help rebuild their country.