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Half a million Afghan refugees return, but face urgent needs

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Half a million Afghan refugees return, but face urgent needs

8 May 2002 Also available in:

8 May 2002

NEW YORK - U.N. refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers on Wednesday hailed the return of more than 500,000 Afghan refugees since the UNHCR began helping Afghans homewards nine weeks ago, but warned that more must be done inside the war- and drought-ravaged country to ensure the sustainability of the returns.

"Many Afghans are returning home with next to nothing," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers, who is currently in New York for meetings at the United Nations. "Donors must ensure that the massive repatriation underway is sustainable for the long term. That means that rehabilitation and development aid must reach rural towns and villages immediately."

In addition to the half million refugees already back from Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asian states, more than 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have gone back to their villages. This amounts to more than 650,000 returnees, or over 54 percent of the U.N. refugee agency's goal for 2002. UNHCR plans to help 1.2 million Afghans homewards this year.

"We are pleased with the pace of returns, but after so many decades of war, Afghans must find a sustainable future upon their return home," Lubbers said.

Pressure is building on the Afghan Interim Authority and humanitarian agencies to keep pace with the expectations of the war-weary Afghan people.

"It is urgent that the Afghan Interim Authority is supported and that development projects get underway so that the Afghan people see that the central government is delivering services and that donor aid is trickling down," he said.

"The long-term success of the repatriation process will be under threat if rehabilitation assistance does not reach Afghans in their home areas and the country's economy doesn't start moving," Lubbers added.

UNHCR is currently spending $23.5 million to purchase beams and other shelter materials for distribution to returnees who need to rebuild their homes. Afghans already receive plastic tarpaulin or tents upon their return, but many people across the war-ravaged country need to reconstruct their homes, particularly the more than half million returnees who have long been out of the country.

The U.N. refugee agency requires $271 million over the 15 months ending in December 2002, of which $171 million has been contributed. The operation costs more than $20 million a month.

UNHCR is funding various projects throughout Afghanistan to provide protection and assist the reintegration of 1.2 million planned returning refugees and IDPs this year, as well as to assist some 3 million Afghan refugees in neighbouring states.