Prague, 17 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Millions of Afghans have fled their country over the past 25 years to escape the Soviet occupation, civil war, and the hard-line Taliban.
"It's not easy to return immediately to Afghanistan with a family of six to 10 members and start from zero."
Faezeh Rezai, a 25-year-old woman, is one of them. She moved to neighboring Iran with her family 23 years ago. She says she has no desire to return to her home country.
"I went to [Afghanistan] last year. It was really like hell for me because I couldn't get used to the people. The people could not accept me either, because since I've been in Iran, I've grown distanced from the [Afghan] culture. I'm assimilated with the Iranian culture. Because of that, we really have many problems. For example, as a woman I can't feel free in the [Afghan] society. Afghan women who have lived there are used to staying at home. But for me as an independent women who is used to working outside [the home], it's very difficult to be imprisoned in the house," Rezai said.
The UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, estimates there are about 1.7 million Afghans still living in Iran. Only about 1 million of them have official refugee status, however. Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, Iran has been saying that it's time for these refugees to return home.
In April 2002, Iran, Afghanistan, and the UNHCR signed an agreement to encourage the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees. The agreement provides transportation and small amounts of food and money to returnees. Since then, more than 650,000 Afghans have returned home. The agreement ends in March 2005. After that date, Afghans will need a visa to legally reside in Iran.
Iran, which is struggling with its own economic problems, wants to speed up the repatriation of Afghans, who are seen as a financial burden on the state.
Last week, Iran's director-general for immigrant affairs, Ahmad Hosseini, said Iran will impose new restrictions in the coming months to encourage Afghans to return home. Under the new regulations, Afghans will have to begin paying for Iranian state education. They will need authorization from the Labor Ministry to work legally. They will also need a permit to open a bank account or to rent accommodation. And Afghans will be banned from living in some Iranian cities.
Touriali Ghiassi is first consul of the Afghan Embassy in Mashad, which has a large Afghan population. Ghiassi says the new regulations will raise the living expenses for Afghans so much that they will be forced to return home. He notes, however, that in the past, many repatriated Afghans simply returned to Iran because of poor living conditions and unemployment in Afghanistan.
"Upon returning to Afghanistan, they face many problems, such as [finding] schools for children, finding a job and a house, which is the biggest problem. They face huge economic pressures, and because of their children and family, they go back [to Iran], where at least they have a bite to eat, a job and a place to stay," Ghiassi said.
Ghiassi categorizes Afghans living in Iran into three groups.
In the first group are those who came to Iran because of the occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet troops in the 1980s and the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. Afghans in this group have lived in Iran for more than 20 years. They have assimilated and have little desire to return.
The second wave of refugees fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of most of the country in 1995. Ghiassi says these refugees are willing to go back since they have closer ties to their homeland, but they want conditions to improve in Afghanistan first.
Ghiassi says the third group is made up of laborers who came to Iran in search of work. He says these workers are in Iran only temporarily. He says most of them routinely travel between Iran and Afghanistan in search of work.
Marie Helene Verney is the UNHCR's spokeswoman in Tehran. She says that, because of the relatively stable political situation in Afghanistan now, many of the Afghans living in Iran can no longer be considered refugees.
"The Iranian government very generously in the past decade has accepted any Afghans who came into Iran as a refugee. From the UNHCR's point of view, we agreed with that definition as long as you had civil war in Afghanistan, [as long as] you had the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the moment, however, if we look at the conditions in Afghanistan, we don't necessarily feel that everyone from Afghanistan who is in Iran is a refugee. At least until March 2005, the [UNHCR] will be continuing voluntary repatriation operation. We think it is important for Afghan refugees to understand that repatriation is the best solution for them," Verney said.
In January, an Afghan delegation led by Bamiyan Governor Rahim Ali Yarzada began a campaign in Iran to promote the voluntary repatriation of refugees. The delegation told the refugees that the province is in need of professional workers in education, health, and engineering.
Verney says living conditions have improved in parts of Afghanistan and that Afghans should seriously consider returning.
"We think that in some regions, they are reaching the point where people should certainly seriously consider going back. I mean, if you're looking at places like Kabul, Bamiyan, Kunduz to some extent, we think that certainly it has reached the point where things have gotten better -- [but] they're certainly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination," Verney said.
Ghiassi, the Afghan consul in Mashad, says that, at the moment, Afghanistan cannot absorb all of the returnees.
He says repatriation should be implemented gradually.
"At least they should be given time to start a new life in Afghanistan. They should have the right to go there and come back to Iran. It means they should have a return visa so that they can come and go and then settle down with the whole family. It's not easy to return immediately to Afghanistan with a family of six to 10 members and start from zero. Their problems are understandable. We can be successful in the repatriation only when our country will be ready to absorb the refugees in different areas," Ghiassi said.