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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 00:18 GMT 01:18 UK
Afghan refugees eager to go home
Afghan refugees in Iran on a UNHCR bus to return home
Some of the youngsters have never seen Afghanistan
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By Jim Muir
The BBC's Tehran correspondent

Despite factional violence in Afghanistan causing problems for a UN repatriation programme for Afghan refugees, thousands based in Iran have been signing up to go home.

There are more than two million Afghan refugees living in Iran and under the UN plan agreed by the Afghan and Iranian governments and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), it is hoped at least 400,000 will return this year.

I'm going back because our country is going to be reconstructed, and that's why I'm happy to be going

Afghan refugee
Thousands of Afghans eager to sign up for the scheme besieged the registration centre in Tehran and others around the country.

The inundation took officials by surprise and many of the Afghans face a long wait in the registration queue before they can even begin the long journey home.

Many of the 2.3m Afghans living in Iran have been here for years - some of their children were born in Iran and have never been to Afghanistan.

Seeking a better life

Some of the first returnees have not been here so long, others are fired by patriotism and eagerness to see their country again, most are just hoping for a better life.

"I'm going back because our country is going to be reconstructed, and that's why I'm happy to be going," said one man.

Returning refugee collects oil in Kabul
Returnees will be given some money and supplies

The returnees are all leaving of their own accord. It is no secret that the Iranian Government would like all of the Afghans to leave, but officials insist there will be no pressures to sign up.

"We're all committed to ensuring that it is on a voluntary basis. The refugees themselves sign forms to that effect, and the UNHCR certifies each case," said Ahmad Hosseini of Iran's Interior Ministry.

After they have crossed the border, the refugees will be given a little money and some food to help them on their way home. Once they are there, the UN is planning to provide more help.

"We don't want to give money and have them come back - no revolving doors," said Philippe Lavanchy from the UNHCR.

Safety fears

But not all Afghans want to go home, many have concerns about the security situation in Afghanistan.

Maybe when things are really calm and safe, I'll think about it

Majan Rassouli
Afghan refugee

Majan Rassouli is not planning to leave. She has been in Iran for six years. She has four young children, and her husband is dead - with no breadwinner, she says she cannot think of going back right now.

"I have no house or anything else in Afghanistan, so how could I possibly go back like this, with four children and no husband?" she asks.

"Also, the situation there isn't secure yet. Maybe when things are really calm and safe, I'll think about it," she added.

Even the Iranian government might not really want all of the Afghans to leave. The construction boom in Tehran is largely fuelled by cheap Afghan labour.

Many of the Afghans working on the building sites are technically illegal, but if they did all go home, it would be hard to find Iranians to do these and other menial jobs.

See also:

02 Apr 02 | South Asia
Afghan refugees rush home
10 Mar 02 | South Asia
New UN scheme for Afghan refugees
07 Nov 01 | South Asia
Iran's refugee tide ebbs
02 Nov 01 | Middle East
Iran refugee camps 'getting worse'
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