The United Nations refugee agency today marked a symbolic milestone with the return home of the one millionth Afghan from Iran since the start of voluntary repatriation to their war-ravaged country in April 2002, reducing by half the overall Afghan refugee population there.
"I remain concerned at the deterioration in the security situation in some regions (of Afghanistan), but today gives us all the opportunity to take stock of how much has been accomplished already," UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers said.
"Behind this figure there are 1 million individual stories, 1 million people who made the choice to go back, and are now rebuilding not just their own lives, but also their homeland," he added. If the current trend continues, UNHCR estimates that another 200,000 Afghans will have gone home by the time the voluntary repatriation programme is scheduled to end in March 2005.
More than 2.1 million Afghans have also returned home from Pakistan, the other major host country, since the start of the programme
The millionth return from Iran comes towards the end of a summer season that has seen a marked increase in the repatriation trend. In recent weeks, up to 4,000 Afghans a day have made the journey home following the introduction of a series of new measures implemented by UNHCR to facilitate repatriation.
"Many Afghan refugees in Iran are very educated. They have professional skills that are essential to the future of Afghanistan," said the agency's representative in Iran, Philippe Lavanchy.
"Every teacher who goes back will teach hundreds of Afghan children to read, every doctor will save lives, all will be an integral part of the reconstruction of Afghanistan. This is why the team here has made it a priority to help refugees who want to repatriate by removing some of the obstacles that stood in their path," he added.
The new measures cover a wide range of issues of concern to refugees, from logistical to educational, including doubling the number of trucks with accompanying baggage, allowing refugees to take more personal belongings home, and running an information campaign to let refugees know their entitlements under the programme.
Benefits include free travel to Afghanistan, as well as a cash grant and funds to purchase food upon arrival. Returning refugees are also integrated into local assistance programmes.