Afghan returnees surge past 200,000 mark
JALALABAD, Afghanistan, April 10 (UNHCR) - More than 200,000 Afghan refugees have returned home since the UNHCR started repatriations on March 1, the UN refugee agency said in a statement today.
The number of Afghans participating in the joint UNHCR/Afghan government initiative reached 203,000 late Tuesday as refugees began returning via the Torkham border crossing from north-west Pakistan, and as Iran launched its 2002 repatriation operation.
The UN refugee agency plans to help some 400,000 Afghan refugees home from Pakistan this year. Due to the surging demand, UNHCR may have to significantly increase its targets for 2002, despite the still-precarious situation inside Afghanistan.
There are more than 3.7 million Afghan refugees, of whom more than 2 million live in Pakistan and more than 1.5 million are in neighbouring Iran.
On Tuesday night, hundreds of trucks carrying Afghans who had been waiting since the previous day at Takhta Baig, outside Peshawar, Pakistan, began moving across the border towards Jalalabad after local authorities convinced protesting poppy farmers to let the returnees' vehicles pass through.
From Iran, more than 260 Afghans have returned home via western Afghanistan's Islam Qala crossing point. Reports of skirmishes on Tuesday in the western Afghan city of Zaranj caused UNHCR's partner in Iran, the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigration Affairs (BAFIA), to delay plans to help Afghans repatriate directly to Nimrouz province. The returnees are temporarily being bussed northwards to Dogharoun, where they cross home.
In northern Afghanistan, Afghans began leaving their squalid camps in the Pyandj river on Monday. More than 500 people boarded IOM-chartered barges and crossed the river, bound mainly for Kunduz province.
Tuesday, Day 2 of the return operation, saw more than 1,500 Afghans repatriate from the island sites, significantly reducing the more than 9,000 Afghans who have been stuck for a year and a half in the river that marks the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
"In Pakistan, the large number of Afghans opting to return has forced UNHCR to increase the number of registration centres and mobile registration teams," UNHCR said in a statement.
The UN refugee agency has opened three registration centres in North West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces. Its mobile registration teams have also been established in three provinces - North West Frontier, Baluchistan and Sindh - to help register Afghans and ease congestion at the centres like Takhta Baig.
UNHCR plans to open several new registration centres in the coming days, with at least one planned to begin registering returning Afghans from next week at Azakhiel, near Peshawar, and another in Karachi.
In a show of support, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers will be making his third trip to the region in less than a year. He plans to visit Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan from April 13-20 to witness refugee repatriation and UNHCR-assisted rehabilitation operations first hand, as well as to meet with leaders of the three countries.