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Saturday, 13 April, 2002, 06:47 GMT 07:47 UK
UN seeks Afghan refugee boost
Afghan refugees
UN say security problems hinder large-scale return
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By Pam O'Toole
BBC regional reporter

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers has arrived in Iran at the start of a three-nation tour to assess the progress of his agency's voluntary repatriation programmes for Afghan refugees.

Returning refugee collects oil in Kabul
Some 40,000 have crossed the Iranian border so far this year
Over the past six weeks, several hundred thousand Afghans have returned from Pakistan under the UNHCR scheme, which offers assistance to people who have decided to return to Afghanistan.

But a similar scheme for Iran, launched earlier this week, got off to a relatively slow start with about 1,300 people returning so far.

Between them, Iran and Pakistan host about three-and-a-half million Afghan refugees.

During his eight-day tour, Mr Lubbers will also visit Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Security fears

Mr Lubbers says he will be trying to establish if solutions can be found to some of Afghanistan's remaining security problems - regarded as one of the main obstacles to large-scale return.

Afghan refugees (UNHCR figures, Feb 2002)
In Iran: 1.5m
Estimated returns in 2002: 400,000
In Pakistan: 2.2m
Estimated returns in 2002: 400,000
He will also be meeting donors and calling on them to produce the cash they have pledged for long-term reconstruction projects to support the returnees.

Mr Lubbers says he understands the hesitancy of the Afghan refugees in Iran.

Unlike Pakistan, where most of them live in camps, most Afghans in Iran are integrated into the community and many have jobs.

'Tense period'

But at the same time, he warned that the Iranian Government's patience would not last for ever.

A Pashtun elder evicted from the north in a camp in southern Afghanistan
Internal displacement remains a problem
"It's clear that the authorities in Iran simply want people to go home - I mean progressively, in growing numbers. So this will be a very tense period, this coming one, two months.

"If we can not deliver the real repatriation, managed with some material assistance, with UNHCR on the ground at arrival points in the villages, then I fear we will see breakdown of trust with the Iranian authorities."

Mr Lubbers says he believes that most areas of Afghanistan are now safe enough to return to.

He says he will use this trip to try to resolve any remaining problems and help create an atmosphere of confidence to give refugees the courage to decide to go home.

See also:

10 Apr 02 | South Asia
Afghan refugees eager to go home
09 Apr 02 | South Asia
Violence halts Afghan refugee flow
03 Apr 02 | South Asia
New scheme for Afghan repatriation
02 Apr 02 | South Asia
Afghan refugees rush home
28 Mar 02 | South Asia
UN to set up Afghan mission
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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