More than 2.5 million Afghans return with UNHCR
KABUL, Afghanistan, Oct 28 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today announced that more than 2.5 million Afghan refugees have returned from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran since the start of UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme in March last year.
On Tuesday, returning numbers from Pakistan crossed the 1.9 million mark, while those going home from Iran exceeded 600,000. The UNHCR-assisted operation will run until 2005 in co-operation with the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
"This has been a tremendously exciting time to be here," said Hasim Utkan, UNHCR's representative in Pakistan who is completing his four-year term this week. "I opened the original UNHCR office in Pakistan when refugees were arriving in 1979, so it was especially rewarding to be here again when we had the opportunity to help 1.9 million Afghans return to their country."
Although the pace of returns has slowed down with the approach of winter, there is still a steady flow and the refugee agency will continue to offer repatriation assistance to those needing help in the coming months.
Under the UNHCR repatriation programme, registered returnees are provided with transport back into Afghanistan. Upon arrival, they receive a travel grant to get back to their home villages, as well as relief items from the refugee agency and food from the World Food Programme.
Returnees who lack proper housing may qualify to receive building materials distributed under UNHCR's shelter programme, which is providing such materials for up to 270,000 returnees this year. Other UNHCR projects benefiting returning refugees include water and irrigation programmes to assist rural communities and farmers.
So far this year, more than 223,000 Afghans have gone back from Iran, while more than 333,000 have returned from Pakistan.
The vast majority of Iran's Afghans go back to central and northern Afghanistan, while a quarter of those going home return to the west. Returnees from Pakistan tend to settle in the eastern and central provinces, while others go back to northern or western parts of the country.
UNHCR estimates that there are about 1.1 million Afghan refugees still in Pakistan's refugee camps, as well as an unknown but substantial number in urban areas. Another over 1 million Afghan refugees are believed to remain in Iran.
Working on the principle of gradual, sustainable returns, the agency will continue to inform Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries about its repatriation programme.
Over the course of 2004, UNHCR will work to boost refugee returns from Iran. At a tripartite meeting earlier this month in Geneva, the Afghan and Iranian governments and the refugee agency reaffirmed their commitment to the voluntary nature of the repatriation process. They also agreed to focus in the coming months on identifying and removing any obstacles to repatriation, and stressed the importance of reintegration and reconstruction in Afghanistan as long-term solutions to the refugee problem.
During the recent Geneva talks, Iran agreed to facilitate the involvement of Afghan refugees in the Constitutional Loya Jirga and the upcoming elections scheduled for mid-2004. Representatives from Afghanistan's Ghazni and Bamyan provinces are also set to visit Iran and meet with refugee communities, part of an effort to help generate further returns from among former residents of those areas.