Record refugee returns to Afghanistan show hopes and challenges

As world leaders meet in London to agree a blueprint for the future development of Afghanistan, the return of millions of refugees signals hope for the future.

"Thousands of returning Afghan refugees pass through the Kabul Encashment Centre every month on their way home. More than 3.5 million Afghans have returned home with UNHCR's help since 2002, the biggest repatriation operation in the agency's history."   © UNHCR/J.Redden/July 2004

KABUL, Jan 31 (UNHCR) - The numbers are impressive, but it is the individual hopes and fears of the refugees who have chosen to return that lie at the heart of Afghanistan's story.

Since the UN Refugee Agency began its voluntary repatriation programme for Afghanistan in 2002, it has assisted more than 3.5 million Afghans to make the journey home - more than 2.7 million from Pakistan and 800,000 from Iran.

This vast movement of people represents the single largest return operation in the agency's history. For the fourth consecutive year, the voluntary repatriation of Afghans in 2005 - more than 500,000 people - was UNHCR's largest anywhere in the world.

It is an important achievement, both for UNHCR and for the people of Afghanistan. The decision of such a huge number of Afghans to voluntarily return to their homeland is evidence of their hopes for the future.

Those hopes and plans for Afghanistan's future were at the centre of discussions at today's conference in London where President Hamid Karzai, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and world leaders met to launch the Afghanistan Compact outlining the country's development plans for the next five years.

During their meeting in Kabul in December, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, called on President Karzai to take into account the needs of returning Afghans when putting forth his development blueprint.

"We're entering a new phase in the return and reintegration of Afghan refugees," said Jacques Mouchet, UNHCR's Representative in Afghanistan. "While we expect voluntary returns to continue to be the main solution for Afghans living in asylum countries, we also need to look at all aspects of population movement in the region, including for migratory purposes."

Under its voluntary repatriation operation, now in its fifth year, UNHCR expects to assist some 600,000 refugees to return from Pakistan and Iran in 2006. As in previous years, assistance will be in the form of a cash transportation grant of between US$4 and US$37, as well as a grant of US$12 per person.

Since March 2002, UNHCR cash grants to returning refugees have totalled more than US$93 million, providing a large cash inflow to some of the most isolated areas of the country.

UNHCR's shelter programme in Afghanistan has so far resulted in more than 140,000 homes being built across the country, benefiting more than 840,000 people. During 2006, the programme will assist with an additional 19,000 homes, helping more than 115,000 returnees.

That is part of UNHCR efforts to ensure people return to sustainable situations in their communities. Community support includes providing wells, schools, health centres, agricultural services and programmes for vulnerable groups.

There are also still some 150,000 internally displaced persons in Afghanistan, the majority living in the south. In 2006, UNHCR will continue to facilitate the return of IDPs to their places of origin and to support their initial reintegration. This will allow UNHCR to cease its assistance activities in IDP settlements by the end of the year.

Repatriation continues. Some 2.6 million Afghans continue to live in Pakistan while a further 900,000 are living in Iran. The repatriation programmes that assist Afghans wishing to return home are conducted under Tripartite Agreements - one between UNHCR and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the other involving UNHCR, Iran and Afghanistan.

"In parallel with UNHCR's continuing repatriation operation, the Afghan government is discussing regional population movements within a migratory framework with Iran and Pakistan. This reflects improving regional cooperation at a time when cross-border movements are mainly motivated by social and economic reasons, and no longer the need for protection," said Salvatore Lombardo, head of the UNHCR headquarters unit dealing with Afghanistan.

"With the support of the European Commission, UNHCR is working with competent technical partners - the International Labour Office, the International Organization for Migration, the World Bank - to ensure that the governments receive appropriate assistance to support this transition," Lombardo said.

The Afghan repatriation operation represents one of the country's key achievements since the fall of the Taliban rulers at the end of 2001. But, together with other UN agencies, UNHCR recognizes that it marks only the beginning of the country's reconstruction.