Afghan repatriation from Pakistan exceeds 50,000 as Jolie visits
ATTOCK, Pakistan, May 6 (UNHCR) - UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie saw off a convoy of trucks carrying Afghans home on Thursday as the total number repatriating under the UN refugee agency programme in the 2005 season passed the 50,000 mark.
The 500 people who left Attock near the Indus river aboard 35 trucks were all ethnic Turkmen and Uzbek Afghans who are carrying their skills as carpet weavers back to their homes in Balkh and Jozjan provinces in northern Afghanistan. The 135 families had all been living in Pakistan since 1980, soon after the Soviet invasion of their homeland started the exodus.
The departure on Thursday, on the second day of a visit to Pakistan by Jolie, came as the total number of Afghans to repatriate since the start of the 2005 programme on March 7 rose to 55,065. UNHCR expects up to 400,000 Afghans to repatriate this year, following 2.3 million who repatriated from Pakistan under the programme in the three previous years.
"These people demonstrate both the opportunities that exist for Afghans to restart their lives at home and the important contribution that skilled Afghans now in Pakistan can make to rebuilding their country," said Guenet Guebre-Christos, UNHCR Representative in Pakistan, who was accompanying Jolie.
Those leaving on Thursday brought to 45,000 the number of Afghans who have repatriated from Attock since 2002 when UNHCR began its programme of assisting those Afghans who wish to go home. The programme runs under a Tripartite Agreement grouping UNHCR and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan that expires next March.
The latest return convoy took place during the four-day visit to Pakistan by Jolie, who has been a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador for nearly four years, to meet staff of the UN refugee agency and talk with refugees and government officials. She met Afghans in Islamabad on Wednesday and later on Thursday talked with Afghans in Peshawar.
"Pakistan has been hosting Afghan refugees for many many years and UNHCR has greatly appreciated it," said Jolie after meeting on Wednesday with Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. "There is still much that needs to be done, these families from Afghanistan still need people looking after them because they have many needs."
This is Jolie's second visit to Pakistan. The American actress observed UNHCR activities with Afghans during an extensive tour of the country in early 2001 before officially becoming a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN refugee agency.
Since then she has undertaken missions to meet refugees and UNHCR staff in more than 15 countries around the world - including each of the last three Christmas seasons. Last October she spent three days in Sudan's strife-torn Darfur region, months after she visited refugees from the conflict who had fled over the border to Chad.
UNHCR have begun talks with the government of Pakistan on developing new policies to manage those Afghans who are likely to be still in Pakistan after the end of the current Tripartite Agreement. A census earlier this year established that just over 3 million Afghans who arrived after 1979 are still in Pakistan - some who may be refugees, but also other categories.
However, UNHCR and the government agree that voluntary repatriation remains the preferred future for Afghans in Pakistan. UNHCR offers travel assistance, ranging from $3 to $30 per person depending on the distance home, and a cash grant of $12 each for those Afghans seeking to repatriate.
All Afghans repatriating must go through an iris test, which detects anyone who has previously been through the process and received assistance to repatriate. Those leaving Attock stopped in Peshawar to undergo the test before continuing up the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan.
Repatriation started more slowly in 2005 than last year because of the harsh winter, which made travel in Afghanistan difficult. However the pace has since picked up and the total is now ahead of where it was at the same date in 2003 and closing the gap with the rate in 2004, when 384,000 Afghans repatriated from Pakistan during the year.
By Jack Redden