Afghan returns from Pakistan, Iran reach new milestones ahead of photo exhibition
GENEVA, May 7 (UNHCR) - The Afghan repatriation programme has reached another milestone, with more than 2 million refugees returning from Pakistan and 700,000 leaving Iran, pushing total returns past the 3 million mark since UNHCR started helping them home in early 2002.
This week, Afghan returns from Pakistan crossed the 2 million mark in the two years the UN refugee agency has been assisting repatriation to Afghanistan. Another 700,000 Afghans have gone back from Iran, while more than 440,000 internally displaced Afghans have headed home with help from UNHCR and partner agencies. This brings the total number of UNHCR-assisted Afghan returnees to more than 3.1 million.
"This repatriation is the goal that we have dreamt of all these years," said Guenet Guebre-Christos, UNHCR Representative in Pakistan. "Of all solutions for refugees, returning to their homeland is the most desirable."
"The UNHCR/Afghan government-facilitated repatriation programme has achieved these enormous numbers despite great obstacles," said UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler at a press briefing in Geneva Friday. "It appears that many Afghans have decided that improving conditions in many parts of their homeland make repatriation feasible."
He noted that while some parts of Afghanistan are still facing security problems, others are reporting improved security and expanding economic opportunities.
"This repatriation of more than 3 million people is also testimony to the enthusiasm of the Afghans and their belief in the stability of the government of President Hamid Karzai, the upcoming elections, as well as in initiatives underway by UNHCR, the UN's Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and many other humanitarian and development partners," he added.
Afghan refugees returning from neighbouring countries under the UNHCR-facilitated voluntary repatriation programme receive a grant to cover the costs of transportation - ranging from $3 to $30 per person, plus $8 apiece in place of food aid and other items that were provided to returning refugees in previous years.
"The effort to rebuild Afghanistan is now fully underway," said Philippe Lavanchy, UNHCR Representative in Tehran. "After March 2005, the agreement we have with Iran and Afghanistan will end. UNHCR will do everything it can in the next few months to clear obstacles that prevent Afghans from repatriating if they want to go back."
This week, the refugee agency started a series of Dispute Settlement Committees in Iran to help resolve legal disputes that prevent or delay the return of Afghan refugees. Common problems involve rental agreements with landlords or back payment of salaries by employers in Iran.
At the same time, UNHCR is continuing its programme of facilitated group returns from Pakistan, addressing concerns and removing obstacles for Afghan groups wishing to go back to the same home area.
To offer a glimpse into the hopes and fears of these returnees, UNHCR is opening a photo exhibition titled "Return, Afghanistan" in Geneva on Monday, featuring works by Afghan photographer Zalmaï.