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Afghanistan: Rights Groups Criticize Repatriation Timing Of Refugees -- Part 2

By Charles Recknagel and William Samii

The head of the UN refugee agency this month visited Iran and Pakistan as part of a new effort to repatriate millions of Afghan refugees voluntarily. The UN says the solution for the refugees is to create opportunities for them in Afghanistan. But critics say Afghanistan -- wracked by drought and war -- is still not a safe destination. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at criticisms of the repatriation effort in part 2 of a two-part series.

Prague, 28 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The UN High Commissioner for Refugee's incentive for an Afghan refugee family of from six to eight people to return to Afghanistan is $91 and a 50-kilogram bag of wheat flour.

The incentive for Afghans leaving Iran is $20, travel expenses, and a sack of wheat flour. They also get a plastic sheet and a lecture on land-mine awareness.

UN officials say that the program is an effective way to encourage millions of Afghan refugees who want to return home to do so voluntarily. They also say that those who have gone back to Afghanistan in the past year have stayed there.

But these points are debated by critics of the repatriation drive.

Tschangiz Pahlavan, a regional expert at the Free University of Berlin, says that most Afghans in Iran do not want to repatriate now. He says Shiite refugees are afraid to go back to their regions because of recent fighting there between their co-religionists and the Sunni Taliban. And many Sunni refugees fear the extreme interpretation of Islamic law the Taliban practices. At the same time, refugees from minority groups fear going back to areas now under the control of a rival ethnic faction.

To add to the list of dangers facing refugees, western Afghanistan is currently suffering a cholera epidemic which this month the UN reported has killed at least 90 people.

The regional expert also says that many of those Afghan refugees who decide to repatriate soon come back to Iran. Tschangiz Pahlavan:

"Those people who are repatriating are going where the war is ongoing and they don't feel very secure in those places and after a while they tend once again to come to a safer place and this is Iran. Because it is safer for them to live [in Iran] illegally than to be back in Afghanistan to be killed by the different factions."

The human rights group Amnesty International this week called it an "illusion" to assume that some areas in Afghanistan are safe for the return of refugees. The group said in a statement that such an attitude, in its words, "ignores the reality that frontlines change quickly and ethnic tensions can flare up at short notice."

The group also criticized the recent extension of the joint UN-Iranian repatriation program. It said that the program is undercut by the short time-frame of the extension and by too few resources to implement proper screening. The UNHCR rejects those charges, saying there is an adequate network of eight screening centers in Iran to handle asylum requests.

Amnesty International also says that Tehran is carrying out a parallel repatriation process which bypasses the safeguards of the UN agreement. The group says 13,000 refugees were expelled by the parallel process since April. The UNHCR again rejects the charges, saying it is satisfied the departure of the 13,000 from Iran was voluntary.

Instead of repatriation, Amnesty International calls for the international community to assure that the UNHCR, Iran and Pakistan are provided with sufficient resources to properly support the refugee populations under their protection.

Margaret Ladner, Amnesty's campaigner for southeast Asia, told RFE/RL that the international community has an obligation to support the refugees outside Afghanistan until it is certain their homeland is again safe for them. Margaret Ladner:

"The international community should assure that refugees have the support they need in the countries of asylum and that they can freely choose when it is the right time for them to return to their home country. Almost everybody would like to see Afghan refugees eventually return to Afghanistan but the determination of when that happens should not be based on the whims of the donor countries or when aid is given to UNHCR and when it is not given to UNHCR. That population should be supported until it is actually safe for them to return."

Faced with such criticism, the UNHCR says no-one is being forced to return to Afghanistan and that the repatriation program is only assisting those who already have decided they want to return home. UNHCR regional spokesman Yusuf Hassan:

"The UNHCR is not at the moment promoting repatriation to Afghanistan. But the majority of the people we are assisting or facilitating to return have come to us out of desperation and said we want to go back home because we find conditions here, either in Pakistan or Iran, intolerable. We would rather be back at home where we can be with our relatives and sort of build on whatever we can back in our villages."

With regional countries and the UNHCR looking toward repatriation as a solution, and critics of the approach growing ever more vocal, the debate over how to solve the Afghan refugee crisis is only likely to grow louder.

But the deciding voice in the matter may not be any of these parties, but the Taliban. So far, the Islamic militia has indicated it sees cooperation on refugee questions mainly as a bargaining tool with the United Nations.

Top Taliban officials say they look forward to the return or their countrymen but that other key issues need to be addressed first. They list these as international recognition and an end to UN sanctions punishing their refusal to hand over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

But such demands could be more than key Western donors are willing to consider to help solve the Afghan refugee problem. Unless the Taliban drops them, there may be little likelihood donors will invest in refugee aid programs inside Afghanistan.

Western officials routinely cite the Taliban as a model of human rights abuses. And currently the only diplomats from Afghanistan at the UN remain the representatives of the government the Taliban overthrew.