Afghanistan: Returns set to top quarter million mark
The number of Afghan refugees returning to their homeland from neighbouring countries is poised to pass the quarter million mark this weekend, bringing the number of Afghans who have gone back since the fall of the Taliban regime to well over two million. We estimate that four million Afghans still remain in Pakistan and Iran.
Despite concerns regarding fragile security in parts of Afghanistan voiced by many organisations, including the UN refugee agency, the steady stream of refugees going home has demonstrated that many Afghans have concluded that their prospects are better in their own country than in the neighbouring states that have provided them with shelter since 1980.
So far this year, our staff in Pakistan saw more than 154,000 Afghans pass through registration centres, while more than 93,000 Afghans have left the Islamic Republic of Iran since the start of January - 53,000 assisted by UNHCR and another 40,000 without assistance. With UNHCR recording at least 3,000-5,000 returns per day, the total will move past the 250,000 mark by Sunday.
Afghans leaving Pakistan have told UNHCR staff in Islamabad that they are leaving because there is work in Afghanistan, the day wages are higher there and the north of the country is comparatively peaceful. Refugees at other centres in Pakistan and Iran cite a variety of reasons to go home. Some see business opportunities. Better rains over the winter have improved prospects for agriculture, local agreements have halted power struggles between some warlords, and there is more - if still inadequate - rebuilding of the war-devastated country underway.
UNHCR teams in Afghanistan are running several programmes to help reintegrate those asking to go home, including providing shelter kits, tools, and food aid under the World Food Programme. UNHCR plans to construct or rehabilitate up to 60,000 shelters and 40,000 wells this year in co-operation with the Afghan government.
Although the total returnees are well below the overwhelming numbers of a year ago, when UNHCR assisted more than 1.8 million Afghans to leave Pakistan and Iran, the total is still very high by standards of most refugee movements.