The UN refugee agency announced that more than 2.5
million Afghan refugees have returned from neighbouring Pakistan and
Iran since the start of UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme in
March last year.
Returning numbers from Pakistan crossed the 1.9
million mark, while those going home from Iran exceeded 600,000. The
UNHCR-assisted operation will run until 2005 in co-operation with the
governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
"This has been a tremendously exciting time to
be here," said Hasim Utkan, UNHCR's representative in Pakistan who
is completing his four-year term this week. "I opened the original
UNHCR office in Pakistan when refugees were arriving in 1979, so it was
especially rewarding to be here again when we had the opportunity to
help 1.9 million Afghans return to their country."
Although the pace of returns has slowed down with the
approach of winter, there is still a steady flow and the refugee agency
will continue to offer repatriation assistance to those needing help in
the coming months.
Under the UNHCR repatriation programme, registered
returnees are provided with transport back into Afghanistan. Upon
arrival, they receive a travel grant to get back to their home villages,
as well as relief items from the refugee agency and food from the World
Returnees who lack proper housing may qualify to
receive building materials distributed under UNHCR's shelter programme,
which is providing such materials for up to 270,000 returnees this year.
Other UNHCR projects benefiting returning refugees include water and
irrigation programmes to assist rural communities and farmers.
So far this year, more than 223,000 Afghans have gone
back from Iran, while more than 333,000 have returned from Pakistan.
The vast majority of Iran's Afghans go back to
central and northern Afghanistan, while a quarter of those going home
return to the west. Returnees from Pakistan tend to settle in the
eastern and central provinces, while others go back to northern or
western parts of the country.
UNHCR estimates that there are about 1.1 million
Afghan refugees still in Pakistan's refugee camps, as well as an unknown
but substantial number in urban areas. Another over 1 million Afghan
refugees are believed to remain in Iran.
Working on the principle of gradual, sustainable
returns, the agency will continue to inform Afghan refugees in
neighbouring countries about its repatriation programme.
Over the course of 2004, UNHCR will work to boost
refugee returns from Iran. At a tripartite meeting earlier this month in
Geneva, the Afghan and Iranian governments and the refugee agency
reaffirmed their commitment to the voluntary nature of the repatriation
process. They also agreed to focus in the coming months on identifying
and removing any obstacles to repatriation, and stressed the importance
of reintegration and reconstruction in Afghanistan as long-term
solutions to the refugee problem.
During the recent Geneva talks, Iran agreed to
facilitate the involvement of Afghan refugees in the Constitutional Loya
Jirga and the upcoming elections scheduled for mid-2004. Representatives
from Afghanistan's Ghazni and Bamyan provinces are also set to visit
Iran and meet with refugee communities, part of an effort to help
generate further returns from among former residents of those areas.