UNHCR helps more than 250,000 Afghans return home since January

More than quarter-of-a-million Afghans have returned home with UNHCR help so far this year from Pakistan and Iran, many due to problems faced in exile.

Voluntary Return: Some two-thirds of the Afghans returning home in 2007 returned to the eastern provinces, where UNHCR and WFP plan to focus new livelihood projects.   © UNHCR/R.Arnold

KABUL, Afghanistan, October 7 (UNHCR) - More than 250,000 Afghans have returned home with UNHCR help so far this year from Pakistan and Iran, many of them reportedly due to economic and security uncertainties faced in exile.

Since January, the UN refugee agency has assisted a total of 251,880 registered Afghans to repatriate from neighbouring Pakistan (248,951) and Iran (2,929). Many said they returned to Afghanistan because they could not afford the high cost of living in exile amid the current food and fuel crisis. Others cited security uncertainties as a reason for leaving Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.

The majority of this year's returnees (63 percent) have gone to eastern Afghanistan, while 13 percent have returned to the capital, Kabul. Another 6 percent have returned to the central region, 13 percent to the north and 6 percent to the south and south-east.

Many of them have returned to their places of origin, but some are unable to go back to their villages as they have no land, shelter, job opportunities or security there. These include more than 30,000 Afghans who have been living in five makeshift settlements in Nangarhar and Laghman provinces since they repatriated this summer with the closure of Jalozai refugee village in Pakistan's north-west.

The UNHCR-assisted voluntary repatriation operation from Pakistan to Afghanistan will be temporarily suspended at the end of October for the annual winter break. Assisted returns will resume in March 2009.

Ewen Macleod, UNHCR acting representative in Afghanistan, stressed the voluntary nature of UNHCR's repatriation programme.

"Afghanistan's capacity to absorb additional returns sustainably has limitations. There are substantial migration flows out of Afghanistan. This is one of the key factors behind UNHCR's position that repatriation must remain voluntary and gradual in order to ensure that it is a durable solution," he said.

More than 5 million Afghans have returned home since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Some 4.3 million of them went back with UNHCR assistance, mostly from Pakistan and Iran. Afghanistan has been struggling to absorb these massive returns.

Many returnees are facing reintegration difficulties, including lack of land, shelter, water and basic services such as health care and education. Job opportunities are also scarce.

UNHCR provides a cash grant averaging US$100 per person upon their return to Afghanistan. The agency also offers shelter assistance to the most vulnerable returnees, and coordinates efforts to establish water and sanitation facilities and other basic infrastructure in areas of high return.

But these are just short-term measures to help returnees reintegrate. The medium-term solution is to incorporate their needs into the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, particularly national programmes in key sectors like health, education, water and sanitation and employment.

To address these issues, Afghanistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and UNHCR will co-host an international conference in Kabul on return and reintegration on November 19 in Kabul.

The conference seeks to reconcile the repatriation targets and time lines proposed by the neighbouring countries with the increasingly challenging operational environment in Afghanistan. It will also be a forum to mobilize additional resources for a comprehensive, integrated approach and multi-year funding delivered through the framework of the National Development Strategy.