Over 270,000 returnees in 2008 as Pakistan season ends

UNHCR Kabul Briefing Note, 3 November 2008

The Afghan voluntary repatriation operation from Pakistan ended last Friday for the annual winter break, with over 273,000 Afghans returning home during the year. Assisted returns will resume after winter, in March 2009.

Between 1 March and 31 October 2008, a total of 273,000 Afghans in Pakistan opted to return home with UNHCR's enhanced repatriation package averaging $100 per person. Only 3,142 have returned from Iran so far this year.

This year's return figure (273,000) from Pakistan is the second lowest since UNHCR started assisting Afghan returns in 2002. However, it still represents the highest return figure for any UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme worldwide. More than 357,000 returned from Pakistan in 2007, over 133,000 in 2006, nearly 450,000 in 2005, over 383,000 in 2004, over 332,000 in 2003 and over 1.56 million in 2002.

Those factors that drove the huge returns to Afghanistan in the immediate post-Taliban years are now less influential. Security and socio-economic problems have increased. Pressures in Pakistan have also risen. Many 2008 returnees said they could not afford the high cost of living in Pakistan due to the current food and fuel crisis. Rents have also risen in cities like Peshawar. Others cited security uncertainties as a reason for leaving Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP). But perhaps most significant of all is that the large majority of the remaining Afghan population has been in Pakistan for more than two decades.

The majority of this year's returnees (61%) have gone to eastern Afghanistan while 12% percent have returned to the capital Kabul. Another 5% have returned to the central region, 14% to the north and 7% to the south and south-east.

Most have been able to return to their places of origin. Some have been unable to go back to their villages as they have no land, shelter, job opportunities or security there. Among this population are 30,000 Afghans who have been living in five makeshift settlements in Nangarhar and Laghman provinces since they repatriated this summer following the closure of Jalozai refugee village in Pakistan's NWFP.

More than 5 million Afghans have returned home since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Among them, over 4.3 million have repatriated with UNHCR assistance, mostly from Pakistan and Iran.

International Conference on Return and Reintegration

On the 19th of November, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will host an International Conference on Return and Reintegration of Afghan refugees. The Kabul conference will be jointly chaired by the Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The aim of the conference is to address a range of issues linked to the sustainability of return and reintegration. Specifically, it seeks to secure support for the government's approach to the challenges posed by refugees, returnees and internally displaced people (IDPs) during the period 2008-2013 as spelled out in the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS).

The decision to hold this conference was taken during the October 2007 meeting of the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board (JCMB) in Kabul. It is hoped that the conference will focus on how to secure long term development funding for supporting reintegration as humanitarian assistance actors and funding have only limited impact on building greater absorption capacity.

While it is not a pledging conference, the Kabul conference will launch a costed Sector Strategy for Refugees, Returnees and IDPs as one of the seven pillars in the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS). It hopes to encourage earmarking of part of the $20 million pledged at the Paris Conference in June to the five-year sector strategy to support returnee and their reintegration.

The conference will also be a forum to mobilise support for return, reintegration and related development programmes and activities as outlined in the ANDS chapter on refugees, returnees and IDPs.

Participants, at the ministerial level, will include relevant Afghan ministers, main donor countries, regional government representatives, UN agencies as well as NGOs and the media.