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Afghanistan: assisted repatriation from Pakistan begins

Briefing notes

Afghanistan: assisted repatriation from Pakistan begins

1 March 2002

UNHCR today kicked off the assisted repatriation of Afghans back to their homeland. Today's operation is still underway, and some 120 persons already departed this morning on their hired trucks from our centre at Takhtabaig, near Peshawar, Pakistan.

We expect the number of Afghans seeking repatriation assistance from UNHCR to increase rapidly over the coming weeks. Today's return was witnessed by hundreds more Afghans, so we expect that as the operation gets underway in earnest on Monday, many more Afghans will be returning with our assistance. After we have opened other repatriation registration centres in Pakistan this month, we eventually expect to be able to register up to 35,000 Afghans a day.

Once inside Afghanistan, Afghans who register with us prior to their departure will be able to get a $20 transport grant to finance their travel homewards. UNHCR is providing a repatriation package containing blankets, a plastic tarpaulin, a kitchen set, tools or agricultural implements, hygienic materials and other items, in addition to a three-month food ration from the UN's World Food Programme.

UNHCR is not encouraging Afghans to repatriate, leaving the decision to the people themselves. Nevertheless, each day several thousand people are spontaneously opting to return home. So there's a clear momentum already. We stand ready to assist up to 1.2 million people to return home this year, including up to 400,000 displaced persons still in-country.

The UN's humanitarian agencies on Thursday launched a $1.18 billion funding appeal for relief projects, of which UNHCR has requested $271 million for the period from October 2001 to December 2002 to assist Afghans to return home and also to care for the more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees in the region.

Elsewhere, we are concerned about the continued deportation of Afghans back to their homeland by Dubai, as well as by Iran and Pakistan, which have each deported hundreds of Afghans so far this year.

Despite our appeals, the Emirates sent another Boeing 747 to Kabul this week, reportedly carrying 215 deportees. This follows the forcible return last Saturday of two planeloads of Afghans - some 900 people, not 750 as we previously reported. We also recently learned that Dubai sent another planeload of deportees to Kabul in January on an Ariana airlines flight. Most of these Afghans have been jailed for up to a year or longer. Upon their arrival in Kabul some told us that they had no means to get home.

UNHCR repeatedly asked the Emirates to be given access to these Afghans long prior to their deportation to see if any had claims to asylum, but we were not allowed to interview them. Our regional office in Riyadh this week contacted the authorities in the Emirates in order to stress that these deportations be stopped and that UNHCR get access to any remaining detainees.

We ask all countries to suspend the deportation of Afghans. The situation inside Afghanistan remains far too precarious, with insecurity and ethnic discrimination still forcing some people to flee the country. Many of the Afghans forced back this week by Dubai lacked the financial means to return to their home areas. We are also concerned that due to reports of ethnic harassment in some quarters, some deportees could face real threats.

Deportations such as these all to often result only in adding to the numbers of displaced Afghans wandering inside their homeland, and more people arriving on the doorstep of overstretched humanitarian agencies.

This is not the time to be forcing people back to Afghanistan against their will, and certainly not people who may have claims for asylum.