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UNHCR: More Afghan Refugees Returning From Iran - 2001-12-06

The United Nations Refugee Agency says the number of Afghan refugees returning home from Iran is growing. More than 24,000 Afghans have gone back since the Taleban's hold on the western Afghan city of Herat was broken November 12.

The U.N. Refugee Agency says the number of returns peaked Wednesday when 2,000 Afghan refugees departed Iran.

UNHCR Spokesman, Peter Kessler says the people are going back voluntarily. But, he says the agency is concerned about reports that some Afghans are being forcibly deported by the Iranian authorities. "On Wednesday this week, 92 people were deported and the UNHCR does not believe that this is the time for any country in the region to be forcing Afghans back until at least the situation in the country stabilizes and until, of course, relief agencies and human rights groups can deploy in the country to monitor how these people who are being forcibly returned are being received," he said.

Most of the people are said to be returning to the region of Herat. This is of some concern to the UNHCR. Mr. Kessler says Herat is shattered by decades of war. He says the city is surrounded by camps where hundreds of thousands of displaced people are living in miserable conditions. "We are concerned that large numbers of people returning to the Herat area could, of course, push the situation over the edge," said Peter Kessler. "They could be more than the region could absorb and indeed people could find themselves in a situation where they have gone back to a much worse situation than in which they lived as a refugee just previously."

Mr. Kessler says it is premature to consider organizing a large-scale repatriation operation. He says the situation in Afghanistan is still too unstable.

Mr. Kessler says the UNHCR is worried that some people, especially ethnic minorities, might face human rights abuse. He says it is important that the economic situation stabilizes and relief systems are in place before large numbers of people go home.