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Tuesday, 9 April, 2002, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
Violence halts Afghan refugee flow
Afghan refugees
Many will wait to see if the country is safe first
A United Nations repatriation programme of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees has ground to a halt because of violence on Afghanistan's borders with Iran and Pakistan.

UN spokesman Yusuf Hassan said the violence was holding up about 40,000 refugees, with protests by poppy farmers and against electricity cuts on the eastern border with Pakistan, to factional fighting on the western border with Iran.

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
Under the repatriation agreement for Afghan refugees in Iran signed last week by Iran, the Afghan Government and the UN's High Commission for Refugees, the return is voluntary and the programme aims at helping 400,000 people to go back to their homes in the first year.

A similar programme launched in Pakistan just over a month ago has been successful in attracting refugees wanting to return home, but UN refugee officials caution that conditions in Iran are very different.

Click here for a map of the area

Mr Hassan said about 700 vehicles and 14,000 refugees were caught on the road between the Pakistan border post of Torkham near the Khyber Pass and the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad by farmers blocking the road in violent protests.

The demonstrators, who were throwing stones at cars, were protesting against government plans to stop them growing poppies used in the making of opium from which heroin is refined.

Drug industry

  • 2000: World's largest opium producer
  • 2001: Production cut after Taleban ban on cultivation
  • 2002: Fears grow of a resurgence in opium production

      Afghan opium industry

  • Afghanistan is one of the world's largest producers of opium.

    Mr Hassan said another 20,000 to 25,000 refugees were stranded on the Pakistan side of the border by protesters blocking roads in tribal areas to which electricity had been cut off for non-payment of bills.

    On the Iran border, only 70 people had turned up at Milak-Zaranj, one of the two main border crossings, because of factional fighting, the UN said.

    But a convoy of 146 Afghans crossed the border at Islam Qala, the other border crossing west of Herat in western Afghanistan, UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski said.

    Iranian situation

    In Pakistan, many of the refugees live in squalid camps, but very few of the estimated 1.5 million Afghans currently believed to be living in Iran are in camps.

    Afghan refugee child in a desolate camp on the Iranian border
    UN hopes refugees from Iran will be keen to return home

    Most are scattered around towns and cities all over the country, with the biggest community in the capital Tehran, and many having lived in the country for more than 20 years.

    Those who arrived most recently and those with little stake in Iran itself will be the first to think of going back, says the BBC's Tehran correspondent Jim Muir.

    Some 40,000 have already spontaneously crossed the border since February, - although some of that movement may have been seasonal labour migration or people simply checking on the situation inside Afghanistan.

    But some Afghans in Iran have voiced concerns about security conditions in their own country, and will want to wait and see before committing themselves to return, our correspondent says.

    Click here to return

    See also:

    10 Apr 02 | South Asia
    Afghan refugees eager to go home
    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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