The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concern over a marked increase in the number of Afghans deported from Iran. The announcement follows a significant number of deportations from the country since the joint voluntary repatriation programme began in April.
"UNHCR would be very concerned if bona fide refugees or people who qualify as protection cases were among those being deported," agency spokeswoman, Laura O'Mahony told IRIN from the Iranian capital, Tehran, on Thursday. "We are currently discussing with the Iranian authorities the possibility of establishing a screening programme to identify such people."
While the refugee agency had earlier been encouraged by the drop in deportations following the launch of the voluntary repatriation programme on 9 April, according to recent figures, the number of deportations in June jumped by almost 50 percent on the figure from May. On 10 July alone, 541 people were deported through the Iranian border crossing of Milak in southeastern Sistan Baluchistan province. The total number of deportations through Milak recorded by UNHCR between 10 March [one month before the start of the UNHCR-assisted programme] and 10 July was 16,164, a rise that could be linked to the recent decrease in the numbers returning through the programme.
As of Wednesday, 104,687 Afghans or almost 15,000 families have participated in the repatriation programme since it began. The vast majority made their way home through Dogharoun in Iran's eastern Khorasan province, with just over 4,000 people passing through Milak.
The cumulative figure accounts for over 26 percent of the 400,000 planning figure for the first year of the operation. The number, does not, however, include those spontaneously returning to their country unassisted - currently estimated at close to 30,000.
In terms of assistance, returnees participating in the programme are provided with food and non-food items, as well as a small cash grant. In Iran, transportation is provided to the two border crossings along the country's 936 km frontier.
Regarding the issue of deportations, as there is no official mechanism to determine refugee status, UNHCR is currently holding discussions with Iran's Bureau for Foreign Immigrants and Alien Affairs (BAFIA) on the possible establishment of a screening programme.
In an effort to ensure the voluntary nature of returnees, interviews are conducted by UNHCR staff at all voluntary repatriation centres (VRC) throughout the country. As many of the returnees are illiterate, those registering for the programme 'fingerprint' the form which subsequently becomes a de facto ID document. The fingerprint is an acknowledgement on their part that they are going home through the UNHCR-assisted programme of their own volition.
Meanwhile, in a related development, the UN refugee agency was also concerned over a government decision to set a deadline of 11 August for registered Afghans to obtain exit permits from Iran and leave the country.
Under a tripartite accord signed in Geneva in April by UNHCR, Tehran and the interim authority in Afghanistan, all Afghans in Iran should have access to the UNHCR-assisted repatriation services. By implication, that means those who are registered with the Iranian authorities and those who are not.
A total of 2.36 million Afghans took part in last year's registration exercise. In June this year, BAFIA began a new registration process for Afghans who arrived or were born since then.
However, according to Bo Schack, deputy chief of mission in Tehran, UNHCR was receiving regular reports about some people who had not participated in last year's registration but would like to repatriate under the voluntary programme. "If the Afghans, including non-documented singles, are allowed to return this year as foreseen under the agreement, this may be an added incentive for these singles to come forward," he said.
His comments make a telling argument that preventing or denying people access to the programme would be counterproductive in the medium to long-term.
Shack added they were concerned that people might end up being denied access to the UNHCR-assisted programme as a result of the decision, which was clearly - and to some extent understandably - prompted by comparisons with the numbers of those repatriating from neighbouring Pakistan in a parallel programme. "It must be remembered that the figures from Pakistan have surpassed even the most optimistic predictions and we are not engaged in a 'competition' so to speak," he told IRIN.
"The most important thing from UNHCR's point of view is that the decision to return is a voluntary one - and the right for each individual and family - and that all Afghans in Iran have unhindered access to the voluntary repatriation programme and the benefits it entails," he maintained.