Wednesday marked the closure of the Mahkaki and Mile-46 displaced persons camps in southern Afghanistan. Part of a determined effort by Tehran to thwart a possible new influx of Afghan refugees entering the country following 11 September, the two camps were administered by the Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS).
"This is our last day," Ali Karimi, IRCS director for Sistan-Baluchestan told IRIN from the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan. "All refugees have gone back to their place of origin. The two camps are completely empty," he said.
Since mid-October, the IRCS has overseen operations at the camps, providing the largely ethnic Pashtun residents with both food and non-food related assistance, alongside international NGOs working on the ground. The closure, with the last of 30 Iranian personnel returning to Iran on Wednesday, marks the end to what at times was a particularly contentious humanitarian issue.
Despite calls by the United Nations on Iran to open its borders following the start of US-led retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan on 7 October, Tehran maintained it could not shoulder the presence of more Afghans in the country - already estimated at well over two million. Fearing a possible influx of up to 400,000 new Afghan refugees along its 936-km frontier, Iran proposed establishing a series of camps just inside Afghanistan, where assistance could be provided instead.
Established shortly afterwards, Mahkaki and Mile-46, just one kilometre and 4.5 km inside Afghan territory, were the only such camps operational and a source of major concern for aid workers and UN officials alike - particularly with regard to security.
At their height, the two camps housed a combined total of 10,500 Afghan refugees. The Iranian government placed a ceiling of 5,000 on each camp in November.
Confirming the news, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) country head, Bruno Jochum, told IRIN from Tehran that most of the Afghans had returned to their place of origin voluntarily, adding those that did not want to return had settled in empty houses in villages around Zaranj, the capital of Afghanistan's southwestern Nimruz Province. "I don't know exactly how many are there at the moment," he said.
MSF had been active in the two camps since November, providing health, hygiene and sanitation assistance. It spent the last days conducting a general medical screening of returnees, focusing on the most vulnerable - pregnant women, the elderly and orphans - to assist them on their way home.
Regarding concerns, Jochum maintained that the coordination of the closures was not done very well. "Certainly there could have been more done on the protection issue," he said. "It became much more of a logistical operation."
UNHCR contracted Vara, a small Afghan NGO, to screen people to determine their wish to return. Those who wanted to stay were supposed to be housed in a camp displaced people near Zaranj. However, following security concerns in the area in April, and the subsequent temporary departure of the UN, the Iranian authorities continued to send people back, and the screening figures could not be used.
While MSF believed conditions at the camp, particularly Mile-46 were hardly sustainable, it remained concerned over what kind of conditions these same displaced people faced once they returned to their homes. "Many people have lost their economic source of income and will need income-generating projects - particularly the nomadic Kutchi people - to sustain them," Jochum said.
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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions