Interview with UNHCR head to mark the return of one million Afghans refugees

[Iran] UNHCR Resident Representative, Philippe Lavanchy.
UNHCR representative in Iran, Philippe Lavanchy (IRIN)

One million Afghan refugees have officially returned home from Iran since the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) started its voluntary repatriation programme in April 2002. This means that the Afghan refugee population in Iran has been halved, with a million Afghans remaining in Iran.

Despite continuing instability in parts of Afghanistan, Afghans have not been deterred from repatriating and in recent weeks up to 4,000 Afghans a day have been making the journey back home - many of them to a country they have either never been to or cannot remember.

If the current repatriation trend continues, UNHCR estimates that another 200,000 Afghans will return to Afghanistan by the end of the voluntary repatriation programme in March 2005. UNHCR is working with the Iranian authorities to find solutions for the 800,000 remaining Afghans, which includes the possibility of temporary economic migratory status.

To mark the return of the millionth Afghan, IRIN spoke to UNHCR Resident Representative in IRAN, Philippe Lavanchy.

QUESTION: What is the significance of the one million figure?

ANSWER: Well, I think what is important to note is that since 2002 there is a tripartite arrangement which facilitates the voluntary repatriation of the Afghans. The same kind of agreement was signed with Pakistan and at that time we had more than two million to repatriate from Pakistan and 400,000 from Iran, the interesting thing was to compare why this happened.

Basically this happened because the living conditions and the situation for the Afghans in Pakistan were not fantastic and therefore people preferred to go home. On the contrary, the situation in Iran was quite comfortable, let's put it that way, for the Afghans. Therefore they preferred to stay here instead of going back home. But since 2002, after the Tokyo conference when the international community - bilaterally also - decided to invest in Afghanistan, and, for example, UN agencies like UNHCR with specific projects to assist these people, in housing for example, plus the activities of a lot of NGOs [non-governmental organisations].

Now we are seeing the result of this investment and the facilities that existed in Iran also have disappeared and therefore the Afghans are comparing the situation between Iran and Afghanistan and for many of them the situation in Afghanistan is better. Security for them there - we all
know that it's not perfect - but the situation has improved considerably; they can find jobs, salaries have increased.

If you take [the southern city of] Kandahar or [the western province of] Herat, you have job possibilities, you have very good salaries and then people say "now it's time to go back" and also because they understood that after the renewal of the tripartite agreement between the two countries and UNHCR in 2003, the time has come to go back home.

Then the movement has increased, in particular this year, and now we have one million people who have repatriated which is 50 percent of the caseload of Afghans in this country, which is fantastic. And the trend is there and even with what happened recently in Herat, or the bomb in Kabul concerning the elections, this is not a deterrent at all and we see that numbers are quite high. We have between four and five thousand people per day going back home.

Q: But with the growing security concerns is UNHCR still promoting repatriation?

A: We are not promoting repatriation, we are facilitating repatriation which is different. We are helping those who decide to go back home through the 12 VRCs [voluntary repatriation centres] we have in the country, to the seven offices we have and with huge logistics to transport these people and their belongings. We have increased also our capacity. Before we had one bus and one truck; now we can move more belongings including tools and other items that people will need to start their activities, their new lives in Afghanistan. This is taking place in the centres and we're also offering medical assistance, at the border mine awareness training, and assistance offered to those repatriated.

Q: How is UNHCR reacting to the increasing security concerns?

A: They [refugees] are informed, we have an MI [mass information] system informing them, a mass information system in place with the authorities, people know what is happening themselves but they also note that basically this is not happening against them. Most - I will not say all - but most of the targets are international organisations, humanitarian officers working in the field etc. It's not something targeted at local people.

Basically they understand this and when you talk to them they don't speak at all about security problems. Some of them are returning because they think the time has come for them to return, because the facilities are not there anymore for them in Iran and that they are informed by the authorities that in principle the assistance for repatriation will end in March 2005.

Q: How many of the one million Afghans has UNHCR assisted in repatriating?

A: Presently I can tell you that 98 percent are assisted by UNHCR. Very few are spontaneous returns. In 2002 we had a lot of spontaneous returns, now the number has reduced considerably and the numbers registered are almost only of people assisted by UNHCR.

Q: You mentioned that many facilities in Iran are no longer available to Afghans - I'm referring to cutbacks in education and health that the Iranian government has imposed. How does UNHCR feel about this?

A: The Afghans - and I'm not just speaking about Afghan refugees, because we opened the door in the tripartite arrangement for all Afghans, not only refugees - we have been assisting the Afghans, the totality of them, and these people have been spending up to 20 years in Iran assisted by the Iranian government and by UNHCR. The authorities and UNHCR has considered that the time had come to decrease progressively this special support that was given to the Afghans. Many of them have jobs, many of them have means, many of them can find this kind of situation or environment in Afghanistan and could return and start a new life in their country of origin.

The reasons why they left - the Soviets and the Taliban - are not there any more. If you look at the stricter sense of the Geneva Convention it's not very crystal clear, the status of these people, and the other reason is that we have been telling them, look, this is the opportunity for you to repatriate, we have the funds, we can support you to repatriate; and at the same time we're discussing with the authorities of both countries to look into the future status of these people in the region and we think that we should work on a temporary migratory status for the Afghans.

This is a win-win situation. The Afghans will find jobs, probably in the surrounding countries, and the Afghan government will be satisfied because remittances will be sent to the country.

Q: When will a temporary migratory framework be in place?

A: This is still in negotiation. This was raised during the last visit of the High Commissioner [UNHCR head Ruud Lubbers] in Iran. The Iranian authorities think that this should be cleared also at a bilateral level between Afghanistan and Iran and I know that the authorities are looking into it seriously. They are even reviewing the status of BAFIA [Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs]. BAFIA could also become a body that will be dealing with migration in this country.

The idea is there, people are working on it and we hope that in the coming months - by 2005, 2006 - we will be in a different situation and that Afghans will not be put in a box as refugees but they will be migrants.

Q: What's the main goal of this repatriation process?

A: UNHCR is not here or in any country just to maintain refugees. We are in each refugee situation trying to find solutions. And the best solution is voluntary repatriation, and in this particular case, voluntary repatriation had a very particular role because at the end of the road who is going to rebuild Afghanistan? Not the international community. The reconstruction will be done by the Afghans and the stabilisation of the situation of the country will also be done by Afghans. Therefore it is important that a large number of them go back home and start a new life with the support of the international community.

This is the main goal, to solve a refugee situation. At the same time we want to have in Iran a system that will allow us - the Iranian authorities and UNHCR - to continue offering protection to those who need protection. And we are not saying that everybody has to go. Those who still need protection, according to the Geneva Convention, should be able to receive it and we will work on this.

Q: What is the biggest problem at the moment facing Afghans repatriating?

A: I have to say that, surprisingly, the exercise is going quite smoothly. Logistically speaking, things are moving quite well. As you know we had an incident in Herat recently [two warlords fighting] and some of the trucks and buses had to stop at Dogharoun [a border point] because we considered it was not safe for people to cross and we almost had a big problem because people wanted to cross. So then we had to calm down the people, and 48 hours after the events in Herat the situation had improved and we coordinated with our office in Kabul, and we decided to resume movement and the refugees were very happy about it. Interestingly the trend did not decrease - the numbers are still very high.

Q: How would UNHCR react to moves by BAFIA to become more proactive in assisting Afghan repatriation?

A: Provided that we still keep dignity in the exercise and the voluntary nature is still there - in the spirit of the tripartite arrangement - we don't have any problem. And if - and we have had some cases of this - we note that some people are being heavily pressed to return, we intervene with the authorities to stop this practice. I had some contact on this issue with the authorities recently and I noted that we did not register any more cases like that.

Q: How can UNHCR help the government capitalise on the fact that it is host to so many Afghans?

A: We have supported, and probably we were the only ones, supporting the effort of the Iranian authorities and we have to commend the effort they have been doing, not only the Iranian authorities but also the Iranian people for accepting so many foreigners in their country. People have [in general] not been put in camps - but [possibly] very few of them - most of them are living like many Iranians in the country. I think this was a very positive attitude taken by the Iranian authorities towards the Afghans. Now what we see is that the authorities have passed a message that people have to return and people I think understood this and are now going back in big numbers.

Q: What is the next stage, when UNHCR's target figure is achieved?

A: Well, the point is that in addition to the Afghans, we have the Iraqi refugees in this country, and as you probably know we have half of all the Iraqi refugees in the world are in this country and it's clear that UNHCR will continue to - for when that will be possible - facilitate the repatriation of the Iraqis. I don't think at this stage, taking into consideration the number of Afghans still in the country plus the importance of building a refugee status determination procedure, plus the presence of Iraqis, that UNHCR will close doors and move on. We'll continue for some time.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

Share this article
Join the discussion

Support The New Humanitarian

Your support helps us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.