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Over 350,000 Afghans repatriate from Pakistan before winter


Over 350,000 Afghans repatriate from Pakistan before winter

More than 356,000 Afghans have returned home from Pakistan this year as voluntary repatriation was suspended this week for the annual winter break.
2 November 2007
UNHCR staff checking Proof of Registration cards to verify the identity of registered Afghans before they return home from Pakistan.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, November 2 (UNHCR) - More than 356,000 Afghans have returned home from Pakistan this year as voluntary repatriation was suspended this week for the annual winter break. Six years after UNHCR started facilitating the initial rush of exiles back to post-Taliban Afghanistan, the earlier euphoria of return has been tempered by harsh realities back home.

"We are leaving now because everyone else is going back," said Mohammed Hanif, a 21-year-old chemistry graduate at the Hayatabad Voluntary Repatriation Centre in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) on Wednesday. "My father is a shopkeeper in Peshawar [NWFP's capital] and my brother in Jalalabad [in eastern Afghanistan] helps out. But it's increasingly hard to meet our expenses in Pakistan. At least in Afghanistan there will be jobs."

Wednesday was the last day of UNHCR-assisted returns from Pakistan for the year, and Mohammed Hanif's family of 12 was among the last to leave. Asked what he expected to find back home in Laghman province after spending 26 years in exile, he said, "We have no land or home there, we're expecting UNHCR to help us when we go back. I hope to get a scholarship. If not, I should be able to find a job because I speak good English."

His hopes may be misplaced. With millions of Afghans returning home since 2002, the Afghan government and its partners are struggling to ensure their sustainable reintegration after decades of war. Some families that returned this year will need additional support to make it through this winter. Many others don't have land, shelter, jobs, schools and health care to sustain their lives back home.

As part of its reintegration aid, the UN refugee agency has provided 10,000 shelter kits this year to the neediest families. It has also allocated nearly US$1 million for water and sanitation programmes, building and repairing 375 water points and 525 household latrines through the government. Since 2002, over 9,000 water points have been completed, mainly in areas of high return.

Socio-economic problems aside, security is another major challenge in Afghanistan as the situation deteriorates in provinces like Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, Wardak, Farah and parts of Badghis, generating fresh displacement.

"We hear on BBC Radio about the fighting at home," said Arzoo, a 15-year-old whose family fled Kunar province for Azakheil camp in NWFP. "We call my aunt there sometimes. She is fed up with the bombings every day. Some of her relatives were killed recently."

Zahida, a 20-year-old health supervisor in Azakheil camp, added: "Most of the people in this camp are from Kunar and Logar. We cannot go back because we have no house, no jobs, and there is still fighting. It's our homeland but there is no place for us." She noted, however, that some families may be willing to go back if there is a guarantee of land and shelter for them.

In 2007, most of the Afghan returnees from Pakistan headed to Nangarhar, Laghman, Kabul, Kandahar, Kunduz and Ghazni. This is a marked change from 2006, when Kabul was the top province of return, followed by Nangarhar, Kunduz, Logar and Paktya.

The return operation from Pakistan will resume in March next year.

In 2007, UNHCR provided shelter materials for 10,000 vulnerable returnee families in Afghanistan, but there is still a dire need for land and housing.

More than 4 million Afghans have been assisted home by UNHCR since 2002, with over 3.2 million going from Pakistan and 860,000 from Iran. Some 3 million registered Afghans remain in exile in the region today, including about 2 million in Pakistan and 910,000 in Iran.

In view of Afghanistan's security situation and limited absorption capacity, UNHCR has repeatedly stressed that any return there must be voluntary and gradual to make sure that repatriation is a durable solution. The agency has also called for the international community to do more to help returnees settle back in their homeland.

By Vivian Tan In Peshawar, Pakistan
and Mohammed Nader Farhad in Kabul, Afghanistan