UNHCR helps 100,000 Afghans to repatriate this year
ISLAMABAD, June 1 (UNHCR) - More than 100,000 Afghan refugees have returned from Pakistan since UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme for 2005 started in March. The pace of returns is expected to increase, with camp closures planned in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Of the total of 101,224 returnees processed by the time the last truck departed on Tuesday, almost half - 48,967 - had been living in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. But the Afghans came from all over Pakistan: 27,168 from Balochistan, 13,627 from Punjab and Islamabad, and 11,462 from Sindh.
The UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme began in 2002 and has now helped nearly 2.4 million Afghans to return from Pakistan, the largest repatriation operation in the world. The UN refugee agency estimates up to 400,000 Afghans could go home from Pakistan during this year.
The repatriation programme is governed by the Tripartite Agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which continues until next March. There has been no decision yet on the policy that will follow the current agreement.
However, UNHCR and Pakistan have begun discussions on policies on managing those Afghans who remain in Pakistan after the Tripartite Agreement. A census early this year by the government, assisted by UNHCR, established that just over three million Afghans - refugees and other categories - live in Pakistan.
The current rate of repatriation is similar to returns in 2003, when 104,092 went home by the end of May, but behind the pace in 2004 when 141,666 Afghans went home in the same period. A total of 343,074 repatriated in 2003 and 383,598 in 2004.
However, the pace of repatriation is likely to pick up in the next month because the government of Pakistan has announced that all refugee camps in North Waziristan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, will be closed by the end of June. The government also said it intends to soon after close all other camps in the FATA region.
The residents of the camps, including about 30,000 in North Waziristan, will be offered a choice of voluntary repatriation through UNHCR or relocation to another existing site chosen by the government.
All Afghans in Pakistan who wish to repatriate are eligible to receive a travel grant of $3 to $30 per person, varying with the distance to the destination in Afghanistan, plus a $12 per person grant to help in re-establishing themselves. Those repatriating go through an iris recognition test that ensures they cannot receive assistance a second time. They receive their grants after arriving in Afghanistan.
In all, more than 3 million Afghan refugees worldwide have returned home under the UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme that started in early 2002.
By Jack Redden