Last convoys of the year head home to Afghanistan from Pakistan
ATTOCK, Pakistan, December 15 (UNHCR) - The year's last return convoys are leaving Pakistan for Afghanistan as the UN refugee agency winds up its repatriation season for the winter.
A total of 29 Afghan families - 164 individuals - left three different Pakistani provinces and joined a convoy that set off on Monday towards their homes in three different Afghan provinces. Their departure from Pakistan's North West Frontier, Sindh and Balochistan Provinces came a week before December 20, when UNHCR will temporarily suspend its voluntary repatriation operation over the course of winter.
"I know this is not a suitable time for repatriation, because there is a harsh winter in Afghanistan, but my family feels alone here without my relatives, who left earlier this year," said Mohammad Zia, aged 27. "We want to join them. At least we'll be happy among our relatives."
Zia had been living for five years in Attock, about an hour's drive from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. "I'm a carpet weaver and I was working in the carpet-weaving factory in Attock," he explained, adding that he had to complete his last carpet - which took three months to make - before receiving his last pay-check.
"I have a house and land in Kabul and I want to rebuild them now," he said. "I hope and believe that I can spend my life in Afghanistan better than in Pakistan. At least I will not be a refugee, and I will try to find a job. If I don't find one, I will start a small carpet-weaving factory with the help of my uncle in Kabul."
Having finished his last carpet just in time, Zia left on Monday on the last convoy of the year from Attock - the site of a string of long-standing refugee camps dating back to the 1980s' Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the evolving civil war that tore the country further apart during the 1990s.
In addition to those, like Zia, who were making for Kabul, other refugees on the convoy were heading for Jawzjan and Kunduz provinces in the far north of Afghanistan. For them, Kabul would simply be a pit-stop before they headed up the famous Salang highway which cuts through the Hindu Kush mountain range to the north.
Abdul Aziz was one of those heading for Jawzjan, along with his sister. However, he had decided to leave his wife and one-year-old daughter in Attock for the time being. "I am going now to my country because I want to construct my home," he said. "I want to start farming on my land and earn some money. I don't want my wife and daughter to face any problems when they come next year."
During 2005, UNHCR has helped more than 445,000 Afghans to return home from Pakistan under the agency's voluntary repatriation programme. "It's the highest number of returns since 2002, when nearly 1.6 million Afghans went home with UNHCR assistance," said Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR's Assistant Representative in Pakistan. "In all, more than 2.73 million Afghans have gone home from Pakistan under this programme since it started in 2002."
A further 1.5 million refugees have gone home from Iran since early 2002 - meaning a staggering 4.2 million Afghans in all have returned to their homeland since the fall of the Taliban: the biggest organized repatriation since the UN refugee agency was created in 1951.
Under the assisted return programme, UNHCR offers Afghans who wish to go home a package of travel assistance, varying from $4 to $37 per person depending on the distance, and a cash payment of $12 per person to help them re-establish themselves in Afghanistan. The assistance is paid once returnees have actually arrived back in Afghanistan.
All those over the age of six who are repatriating with UNHCR assistance must go through an iris recognition test, which ensures that no one receives the return package more than once. This ground-breaking technology was first tested on returnees in Pakistan in the autumn of 2002, and adopted for all assisted returns the following year.
UNHCR and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan have agreed to extend the expiry date for the present Tripartite Agreement, which regulates the voluntary repatriation of Afghans, from March to December 2006. Next year's repatriation season will begin in March as usual.
There are an estimated 2.6 million Afghans still living in Pakistan. This figure is based on the March 2005 census that counted some 3 million Afghans in Pakistan and takes into account the 445,000 who have gone home since then. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, there are still approximately one million registered Afghans, after some 260,000 refugees repatriated in 2005 - meaning a total of some 700,000 have returned from both countries during the course of this year.
By Asif Shahzad in Attock, Pakistan