Thousands of refugees head home as stability returns to parts of Afghanistan
QUETTA, Pakistan, Dec. 14 (UNHCR) - With a degree of stability returning to parts of Afghanistan, more than 17,500 people went home this past week from Pakistan and Iran, even as other Afghan refugees continue to arrive at the Chaman border crossing on the Pakistani border.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Friday that 7,600 people returned on their own from Iran and another 7,000 from Pakistan's southern Baluchistan Province. More than 3,500 Afghans reportedly crossed home to Kabul and Jalalabad through Pakistan's Khyber Pass.
A UNHCR spokesman said many of those returning might be going back for the Eid festivities and were clearly not the most destitute refugees. "Nevertheless, 17,500 people going home in a week is a positive sign," spokesman Ron Redmond said. "Despite this, we caution Afghans not to rush back, nor should countries in the region rush any of the more than 3.5 million refugees home with winter upon us."
The refugee agency has been urging the refugees not to return home immediately despite the near total collapse of the Taliban regime because Afghanistan, torn by more than 20 years of war, is not ready to receive them. One major problem, UNHCR said, is the omnipresence of landmines. Homes, schools, roads, and health facilities must also be rebuilt.
While thousands of Afghans are returning home voluntarily, some 200 Afghans a day are arriving at UNHCR's Killi Faizo staging site at the Chaman crossing point. The refugee agency estimated Friday that some 200,000 Afghans have entered Pakistan since the September 11 attacks on the United States. Of these, about 35,000 people are being helped in six camps run by the agency.
Most of those who entered the country during the past two months, however, are the so-called "invisible refugees" who have moved in with relatives or disappeared into major cities such as Quetta or Peshawar. Many of these refugees have been reluctant to check into the camps for fear of being deported.
With the Roghani site near Chaman having reached its full capacity of 18,000 people, the agency has erected 200 tents at the nearby Landi Karez site, where water and sanitation work is also under way.
Meanwhile, UNHCR's staff in Quetta Friday received four trucks carrying 25,000 mattresses donated by the Japanese government and was expecting the arrival by cargo plane of 40,000 blankets contributed by the Austrian government.
The refugee agency said Friday that it now has four international and 12 national staff members in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, with additional personnel on stand-by in neighbouring Uzbekistan ready to be dispatched in the coming days.
UNHCR, working from Mazar-i-Sharif with the French non-governmental organisations ACTED and Solidarités, is distributing aid to 1,000 people in Balkh Province around Mazar-i-Sharif. About 2,500 people will also receive aid in Baghlan Province to the east of the city.
On Friday, UNHCR distributed aid kits to 1,600 people in the capital of Kabul from stocks flown in on an Italian government-chartered Ilyushin 76 cargo plane. Once the Eid celebrations end next week, the agency plans to issue emergency assistance kits to some 50,000 people in the capital and three neighbouring provinces.
In collaboration with the International Office of Migration, the refugee agency is planning the registration of displaced Afghans in the Maslakh Camp near Herat, where 200,000 people are sheltered. There are currently five sprawling camps for displaced persons around Herat.