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Afghanistan: UNHCR Hopes More Than One Million Afghan Refugees Go Home

The UN refugee agency says it hopes to eventually conclude its aid programs for Afghan refugees in Pakistan as it establishes new assistance facilities in Afghanistan. But the agency also says it is putting no time limits on its programs to help refugees in Pakistan and wants them to return home when it is safe to do so. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with a UNHCR official about the refugee situation in Pakistan and the agency's plans for the future.

Prague, 22 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The UNHCR says it hopes to wrap up its longstanding assistance to Afghan refugees in Pakistan as it witnesses increasing numbers of people now beginning to return home.

Hasim Utkan, a UNHCR representative in Pakistan, told reporters at a press conference last week in the western border city of Quetta that during a period of 10 days earlier this month, the agency saw more than 45,000 Afghan refugees return to their country. He also said the UNHCR is increasingly providing assistance inside Afghanistan to encourage people to return home.

But Utkan gave no time frame for when the UNHCR might hope to complete its programs in Pakistan, where it has provided help to millions of refugees since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. There are currently an estimated 2.5 million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

RFE/RL recently spoke with Peter Kessler, a spokesman at UNHCR's headquarters in Geneva, to learn more about the current refugee situation in Pakistan and the agency's plans there.

Kessler says the UNHCR has no plans in the foreseeable future to end its assistance to refugees in Pakistan or Iran.

"UNHCR has no plans this year to phase out camps, to phase out assistance activities, in the neighboring countries. There are many refugees who still need assistance, who depend upon assistance and protection, people who still...cannot return home [because] they might face security or other concerns."

But the spokesman says the agency is busy making logistical preparations for what it believes could be a largescale voluntary return home for more than a million Afghans this summer. Those returning to their homes are expected to be refugees in Pakistan and Iran, as well as Afghans who are displaced inside Afghanistan itself.

"UNHCR this year hopes to get some 1.2 million Afghans back to their homes. We, of course, are going to be targeting some of the assistance to displaced Afghans still inside [Afghanistan] to help them get back into their home areas, as well as, of course, to refugees in Iran and Pakistan. And if more people come forward, we will certainly up our estimates and boost our programs [to accommodate them]."

Kessler says that to help the returnees, the agency is focusing on creating distribution centers inside Afghanistan where they can obtain food and basic supplies as well as -- when needed -- materials for rebuilding their homes. He says that this summer the agency will begin distributing within Afghanistan the first part of among $40 million in reconstruction kits, including wood, roofing beams, doors, door frames, window frames and tools. Some of the materials are being procured as far away as Europe and Africa and will be shipped in via Pakistan.

The spokesman says the UNHCR has been encouraged by the number of people already returning to Pakistan during the winter months. He says the agency still considers the security and food situation inside Afghanistan to be precarious and is not encouraging repatriation at this time. But it is providing some travel assistance to those who want to go anyway.

"UNHCR is prepared to help Afghans once they have returned home. And in the last three weeks, we have already given some 80,000 recent Afghan returnees a small assistance package, including $20 per person to finance their travel, in addition to family kits containing various items like plastic tarpaulins, blankets, hygienic kits, and other goods."

The refugee returns come as some 250,000 other Afghans have entered Pakistan legally or illegally since 11 September, fleeing the U.S. military strikes that toppled the Taliban or continuing drought, banditry, and ethnic harassment. The new arrivals include some 20,000 who came last month before Pakistani authorities stopped admitting people into a string of new border camps created by the UN to handle the influx.

Both the Pakistani and Iranian governments have repeatedly expressed their impatience with the continuing Afghan refugee crisis and what they say is inadequate international help to host countries.

Pakistani Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider told Reuters last week that Islamabad will not allow more Afghan refugees to enter Pakistan now that reconstruction work is expected to begin soon in Afghanistan.

Iran's senior Interior Ministry official for dealing with refugee affairs, Ahmad Hosseini, said earlier this month that the recent formation of a stable administration in Kabul means it is time for the Afghan refugees in his country to go home.

The Iranian official also said that some 145,000 Afghans have left Iran since March 2001 and that registered Afghan refugees still in the country "will be gradually repatriated in a two-year program." He said illegal immigrants have been given a six-month grace period to leave the country.