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European Union reaches out to Iran over Afghan refugees

Promises of more help for Afghan refugees made by the European Union aid chief on his visit to Iran this month were not enough to dissuade Mariam Haidari from wanting to head to Europe.

[TEHRAN] Promises of more help for Afghan refugees made by the European Union aid chief on his visit to Iran this month were not enough to dissuade Mariam Haidari from wanting to head to Europe.

She plans to go to Germany to join her husband and three of their children who were among a million-strong wave of irregular migrants to arrive in Europe last year, causing a rift among the bloc's members who struggled to agree on how to deal with them.

"Life was very difficult here and my husband was the only breadwinner for the family ... We couldn't afford the living expenses," said Ms Haidari, who was at a refugee administration centre in Tehran when EU humanitarian affairs commissioner, Christos Stylianides visited the facility.

To help stem the influx, the bloc is increasing aid to certain countries on migrant routes in the hope of persuading people there to stay put. So far these have included Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and some African countries.

Now the EU is trying this strategy in Iran, which sits on the main transit route for Afghan refugees - the second-largest group after Syrians to have reached Europe by sea last year.

In Tehran, Mr Stylianides announced the doubling of EU humanitarian aid to Iran to 12.5 million euros this year, with a special focus on education and health services for Afghan refugee children.

"It's better to be close to your home and move back when the situation gets better than to be far away," Mr Stylianides said.

"It's better for Afghan refugees to integrate in this society than in Europe. Here it's the same religion, similar mentality, culture. It's much harder in, let's say, Germany."

Iran has only recently become more accessible to such EU diplomacy, enabled by a tentative rapprochement after a landmark agreement last year for Tehran to scale down its nuclear programme and the West to ease its hard-hitting sanctions.

The EU hopes humanitarian aid could help re-establish ties with Iran, an Islamic republic of some 78 million people, which has a high number of executions and ranks second in the world on the highest number of imprisoned journalists.

Freedom of expression, rights of ethnic and religious minorities and women there all are a major concern for the bloc.

But during his visit Mr Stylianides carefully avoided criticising Iran on that, instead playing up the need to rebuild ties with Tehran to be able to engage more on the ground.

Nevertheless, EU's aid to Iran fades compared to 3 billion euros the bloc promised to Turkey for its help in managing migration.

Iranian officials said foreign aid covers only about 6 per cent of the cost of hosting the Afghan refugee community and said the EU should do more.

"I would call it an investment for the European Union, any kind of support to the education system," said Hamid Shamsaldili at Iran's Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs.

"Any kind of support to this country will prevent these people from going to European countries."

The situation of Afghan refugees in Iran is often dire.

Iran has hosted the large refugee community for more than 30 years now as Afghans first fled the Soviet invasion, then the long Taliban insurgency and now Islamic State attacks.

A third of them have a formal refugee status with some limited benefits. But the other two millions are "undocumented", meaning that for generations they have had no access to education, jobs or healthcare.

Last year, as its ties with the West started to improve slowly, Tehran allowed children of the "undocumented" Afghan refugees to attend public primary schools. Aid groups on the ground say some 48,000 such children enrolled in 2015.

It was the first time Western aid agencies could reach out to this large and extremely vulnerable group.

"There has been quite a lot of hope, from the Iranian authorities as well as from our side, that this political opening will create more funding options," said Olivier Vandecasteele, the Norwegian Refugee Council's head in Iran.

"So far it has raised interest but it hasn't translated into any additional huge funding decisions."

At the time of Mr Stylianides' visit, Swedish officials were in Tehran to pick 157 Afghans for resettlement, a tiny share of the large numbers of such requests.

It is mostly the younger Afghans who want to go to Europe but EU's asylum acceptance rates for them are low.

And they face dangers along the way: For those crossing the Mediterranean, as most Afghan refugees do, the UNHCR said 2016 is shaping up to be the deadliest year yet.