Flow of Afghan returnees stretches UNHCR's registration capacity
PESHAWAR, March 15 (UNHCR) - With thousands of Afghans returning home and their numbers growing daily, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday that its repatriation programme was being stretched, but added that the scheduled opening of additional registration centres should meet the growing demand.
Despite the popularity of the repatriation programme, however, the agency reiterated its stand that it is too early to formally organise mass returns. Ron Redmond, UNHCR's spokesman, said such a decision "still depends on conditions inside Afghanistan."
"For the time being we are not comfortable with promoting return," Redmond said in response to a question at a briefing in Geneva, referring to the continuing insecurity in many parts of the country and the almost total lack of infrastructure after two decades of war.
There are currently more than 3.5 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran. The agency expects to help 1.2 million people return to their homes this year, including 400,000 internally displaced Afghans.
In just two weeks, 45,446 Afghans representing 8,801 families have returned home from Pakistan with the help of UNHCR. On Thursday alone, more than 8,500 people passed through the Takhtabaig Voluntary Repatriation Centre near Peshawar. With thousands more waiting, the centre was forced to operate Friday, a Muslim holiday, to clear up the backlog.
Redmond said a second registration centre at the Nawa Pass would be opened April 1.
In addition, a way station where returning refugees can spend the night safely if they cannot make it across the frontier before sundown would be opened close to the Afghan border.
The refugee agency plans to establish seven such centres in Pakistan, each capable of processing up to 5,000 people a day.
Once registered, the refugees are given a voucher they can then turn into one of the 32 distribution points being set up in each Afghan province, where they will receive up to $100 per family to cover their transportation costs. The returnees will also receive a three-month food supply and other items, including seeds and farm tools, to help them begin new lives in their drought-ridden and war-devastated country.
The German NGO GTZ is managing the distribution centres.
The U.N. agency plans to establish a similar voluntary repatriation programme in Iran next month. Eight registration centres are expected to be opened in that country, and returning Afghans will also receive food and other supplies as well as money to cover their expenses once they have arrived in their home regions.
The Iranian government announced earlier this week that it will allow each refugee leaving the country to return with the equivalent of $1,000 in the Afghan or Iranian currencies. Families may also repatriate with personal effects worth up to $1,000.