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Afghanistan: Despite Refugee's Fears, UNHCR Prepares For Flood Of Afghan Returnees

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is predicting that 1.2 million displaced Afghans will try to return to what is left of their homes this year. But fears of renewed fighting and ethnic harassment in Afghanistan are making many refugees in neighboring Iran and Pakistan wary about returning soon.

Kabul, 26 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations officials say they expect a flood of Afghan refugees to start returning to their home regions when voluntary repatriation centers open in Pakistan and Iran in the weeks ahead.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mission is planning to open the first of seven repatriation centers in Pakistan on 1 March at Tartabek near Peshawar.

Filippo Grandi, chief of the UNHCR mission in Afghanistan, says each of the seven centers will be capable of processing about 5,000 people per day.

Altogether, as many as 5 million Afghan refugees are thought to have sought safety outside of their country during the last two decades. Grandi says the UNHCR budget for helping those who return this year is based on estimates of 1.2 million returnees.

"For this year, 2002, we project approximately 1.2 million people will return to their homes. That means 400,000 from each of the two neighboring countries and another 400,000 from within Afghanistan. So 1.2 million."

In addition to registering the returnees at centers in Pakistan and Iran, the UNHCR also is establishing distribution centers to supply returnees with food and other items -- including kits of wood to build frames for temporary houses.

"This will be a long operation. The absorption capacity of Afghanistan is low. Many people are still reluctant to return. Many may not eventually return. In any event, given the large size of the Afghan population abroad and displaced within, we estimate that it will take three, four, maybe five years for this movement to be complete -- provided, of course, that there is no push on the part of the neighboring countries. [That's] something that they have said they would not resort to and something that the Afghan administration has been adamant in asking not to happen."

Grandi also says that conditions in Afghanistan could easily impact the repatriation process and result in far fewer returnees than the original UNHCR projection.

"If political stability remains, if some more rains come, and if, in even small ways, jobs become available in larger numbers, we believe that there will be quite a large return of Afghans from Pakistan, from Iran, and also from within Afghanistan to their homes."

Grandi says a major hurdle faced by the UNHCR is to try to get refugees from rural areas to return to their own regions, rather than flocking to Afghanistan's major cities, which are not prepared to handle a massive influx of people.

"We cannot discount an important phenomenon that we have seen in other situations -- in Bosnia, for example -- in urbanization of the refugee population. [That is,] people who were originally from rural areas going back to urban areas. That's a big problem, because cities here do not have the services to sustain the existing population, let alone an additional large number of returnees."

Grandi says Afghanistan's interim administration also is concerned about too many returnees gathering in the already overburdened urban areas.

"We don't think that people will go back to all areas immediately. It will be gradual, hopefully, and it will be particular to certain areas. We believe, and we have agreed with the interim administration, that we will focus primarily on rural areas, [on] trying to attract people back to where they belonged originally. But the interim administration has been quick to tell us that we should very rapidly start planning with them what to do if people do not want to go back to their villages. We will have to think in terms of strengthening social services in the cities, probably."

New York-based Human Rights Watch today issued a report warning that many Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan are afraid to return to their home regions.

That report (see says many refugees expect that they will become victims of violence and ethnic harassment if they do return -- and that they are more willing to endure continued abuses and hardships in exile than to return to an unstable situation.

The 45-page report cautions against hasty repatriations until conditions in Afghanistan become safer.

Indeed, many Afghans now in the country are fearful that there will be a return to fighting between the country's regional warlords as soon as the spring -- particularly if some regional leaders feel they are not adequately represented in the Loya Jirga that has been tasked with appointing a transitional government in June. The participants in the Loya Jirga have yet to be named.

The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan, Zalamai Khalilzad, said on 24 February that the greatest security challenge facing Afghanistan is a return to "warlordism" -- that is, war between rival regional leaders that still have their own armies.

"There are still multiple armies in this country, certainly. The control the interim authority has is limited. This government is made of forces that, on the one hand, agree on a lot but still are subjected to conflicting pressures internally."

After more than 20 years of war, there also are many Afghans who have established new lives in the United States and the European Union.

Habib Mayar Wardak, a U.S. lobbyist for the Afghan diaspora and the chairman of a New York-based expatriate group called Afghan Community in America, this month returned to Kabul for his first visit since the 1970s.

He says he is shocked by the destruction he has seen. But he says that such difficulties should not discourage well-to-do Afghan expatriates from returning to their country -- even if only for a few months -- to help the people there.

"I want to talk with the [Afghan] community [in America and tell them,] 'Either [help] with money or by yourself. Go and stay in Afghanistan and work for one month or two months in the hospital, in the schools, in the offices.' We have plenty of well-educated young Afghans [in] America and in Europe. With all the expert Afghans living in Europe and America, they should be coming back and starting to work. It's not necessary to get a salary. [They should] come in for two to three months -- whatever [they] want."

UNHCR mission director Grandi concludes that despite the risk of a return to war, the situation in Afghanistan now is the "first big chance" for the country, the region and the international community to resolve the Afghan refugee crisis -- which he calls "the second-largest displacement situation in the world after the Palestinian problem."