Afghan returns pass 400,000 mark in 2005, reaching 4.2 million overall
KABUL, Afghanistan, September 22, (UNHCR) - The number of Afghans seeking assistance to return home this year surpassed 400,000 on Thursday, and now stands at just under 3.5 million since 2002, the UN refugee agency said. Including those who have returned without assistance, the overall total has now reached 4.2 million.
The Afghan repatriation, now in its fourth year, is the biggest organized repatriation operation globally in 2005, and, taken in its entirety, is easily the largest such operation in history.
By Thursday, following the resumption of the repatriation operation which had been suspended during the Afghan election period, the number of Afghans returning to their homeland with UNHCR assistance in 2005 had reached 415,512. Of these, 365,575 have come back from Pakistan and a further 49,025 from Iran.
Since UNHCR's repatriation programme began in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban regime, a total of 2.9 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan and 1.3 million from Iran. A census of Afghans living in Pakistan, conducted earlier this year, showed that some three million remain in the country - or triple the number remaining in Iran, which is estimated to be around 900,000.
The decision by the Government of Pakistan to close all refugee camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has triggered a sharp increase in the number of Afghans opting to return. The most recent closures affected more than 100,000 people. The majority have chosen to repatriate with UNHCR assistance, while others accepted the Pakistan government's offer of relocation to another existing camps. The order to close the camps was given on security grounds. Most of the returns have been to Afghanistan's eastern provinces of Paktya, Khost and Nangarhar.
The return of the former FATA camp residents over a brief, five-week period has put UNHCR's reintegration operations within Afghanistan under significant pressure, the agency said in a statement in Kabul. Together with the relevant government ministries, other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, the UN refugee agency is working to ensure that families and individuals are able to settle into their places of origin before winter sets in.
"Many of the families are returning to areas where there has been limited development due to the security situation," said Jacques Mouchet, UNHCR's Representative for Afghanistan. "There are also a large number of individuals who left Afghanistan 25 years ago and who face challenges in reintegrating into their former communities. In coordination with local authorities, the immediate task of UNHCR is to identify and assist those individuals who are particularly vulnerable."
Under UNHCR's repatriation programme, each returning Afghan is eligible for transport assistance ranging from $4 to $37, depending on the distance to their destination. They also receive a grant of $12 each to help with additional costs.
The return assistance is complemented by programmes designed to help former refugees resume their lives in their original communities. In all, during 2005, the UN refugee agency said it will help build or repair more than 24,000 returnee homes across the country. Short-term employment as well as skills training is being provided to vulnerable individuals as part of UNHCR's income generation activities. Water points which will benefit some 65,000 individuals are being dug, while co-existence programmes are underway in an attempt to ensure that tensions within communities are resolved peacefully.
By Tim Irwin in Kabul, Afghanistan