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Afghanistan: UNHCR Reports Surge In Number Of Refugees Going Home

The United Nations refugee agency says it hopes to give repatriation assistance to some 250,000 Afghan refugees and displaced persons returning home over the next six weeks. The numbers are a measure of what the UNHCR is calling an unexpected flood of people going home, which is forcing the agency to seek more funds from the international community.

Prague, 15 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan refugees and displaced persons are returning home at such a high rate that United Nations refugee officials say the numbers could well exceed 1.2 million by the end of this year.

Over the next six weeks alone, the UNHCR says it expects to give repatriation assistance to some 250,000 refugees returning to Afghanistan from neighboring countries or returning to their homes from camps for displaced persons within Afghanistan itself.

As the number of returnees grows, the surge of activity is placing severe strains on the financial ability of the UNHCR and cooperating humanitarian agencies to meet assistance demands. The UNHCR said recently that it has raised just some $160 million of the $271 million it estimates it needs to meet repatriation demands through the end of the year.

Separately, the International Organization for Migration -- which organizes transport inside Afghanistan for returnees -- said it would run out of money by the end of this month unless donor governments provide some $27 million more in assistance.

To learn more about the progress of the repatriation efforts and the demands it is placing on refugee agencies, an RFE/RL correspondent recently spoke with Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Geneva.

Janowski said that the UNHCR's current repatriation efforts from Pakistan began on 1 March. A similar effort began in Iran last week.

"More than 200,000 people -- today it is going to be more like 220,000 [or] something like this -- have gone [since 1 March] from Pakistan. And since we started doing it from Iran on 9 April, we have had roughly 3,000 people going back. But the daily numbers have increased. Yesterday, we had a record 1,000 people going back [from Iran] whereas previous days it was just a few hundred. So it's been picking up," Janowski said.

At the same time, refugees who have long been sheltering on a string of islands in the border river between Afghanistan and Tajikistan have also been returning to their home areas. The UNHCR estimates that some 3,900 people living on islands in the Pyandj River have gone back into Afghanistan in the last week.

Janowski said the fast pace of returns is causing the refugee agency to revise its original projections that some 1.2 million Afghans -- including refugees and displaced persons -- would return home by the end of this year. He said that the evidence in Pakistan suggests as many as a million people could return this year from that country alone.

"The pace of returns from Pakistan is quicker than we expected. Our expectation was that about 400,000 people would return this year, but 200,000 have returned now in a month and a half, so it kind of becomes clear that it is going to be many, many more returning. If this pace keeps up, it is going to be at least a million. We had a planning figure of 400,000 [for Pakistan]," Janowski said.

Agencies estimate there are 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and another 1.5 million in Iran, plus another half a million elsewhere in the world. Some of the refugees have been in exile since the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, while others fled during the four-year civil war that broke out when the Soviets departed a decade later. The most recent exiles are refugees from the rule of the fundamentalist Taliban militia, which collapsed under U.S.-led bombing late last year.

The UNHCR spokesman said that the number of returns has sapped the agency's resources to the point that it is seeking additional emergency funding from donor countries. The agency gives returnees small cash grants of $10 to $15 per individual, plus shelter assistance and a sack of wheat flour.

"We are spending quite a lot of money...a few weeks ago we basically had a few days' [worth of repatriation assistance funds] left, then we got contributions from Holland, Sweden, and the U.S., which basically shored up the operation, so it is not as traumatic now. But it is a costly operation, we'll basically keep asking for money," said Janowski.

"The monthly cost is about $20 million for everything together, [including] looking up people [contacting the refugees] in Pakistan, in Iran, organizing all the movements, all the cash grants, and looking after the displaced inside Afghanistan," Janowski added.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers is currently midway through an eight-day regional tour that yesterday saw him visit a crossing site for returnees at the Iran-Afghan border. He is due to meet with Afghan interim administration head Hamid Karzai later in the week and to visit Pakistan.

The tour is highlighting refugee concerns as international attention focuses on the challenges of reconstructing Afghanistan, maintaining security and the upcoming convening of a Loya Jirga (national assembly) in June to elect a new government.

In recent years, both Iran and Pakistan have grown increasingly impatient with hosting large numbers of Afghan refugees in the absence of substantial new international assistance.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said last month that his country would not allow any more refugees to enter now that reconstruction work is expected to begin in Afghanistan soon. Since 11 September -- and despite the general trend of Afghan refugees going home -- some 250,000 Afghans have entered Pakistan legally or illegally to flee the U.S. strikes on the Taliban or continuing drought, banditry, and ethnic harassment. Islamabad has called most of the new arrivals economic migrants rather than asylum seekers.

Iran's senior Interior Ministry official for dealing with refugee affairs, Ahmad Hosseini, said last month that the recent formation of a stable government in Kabul means it is time for refugees in Iran to return home. Iran's Immigrant Affairs Department has said that providing for the officially registered 1.4 million refugees costs about $1 billion annually.

Most of the refugees in Iran do not live in refugee camps, as in Pakistan, but have integrated into the local economy as day laborers. That has given rise to claims by some Iranian officials that the refugees take jobs away from citizens. Tehran considers Afghans who fled the country between the 1979 Soviet invasion and the Soviet pullout to be refugees, but considers later arrivals -- who fled inter-factional conflicts -- as illegal migrants.

In early April, the UN and Tehran signed an agreement establishing terms for the return of refugees from Iran. Under the accord, returnees are allowed to take an unlimited amount of currency earned in Iran home with them. Janowski said the accord also urges Iran not to force anyone to return home who does not want to.

"[The accord] involves the standard clause which we have in every agreement we are a part of, which means that people will not be pushed back or driven back against their will, so, for the time being, we are saying this return has to be voluntary," Janowski said.

"For our purposes, [the accord] applies to all Afghans in Iran. [Iranian officials] have in the past deported people they see as illegal. Nonetheless, we think that, in general terms, that pushing back any Afghans at this stage would be counterproductive because of the hardship they would be exposed to and also the hardship it would impose on Afghanistan as it is trying to get back on its feet," Janowski added.

The UNHCR has not encouraged Afghans to return home now during the winter, citing harsh conditions, uncertain security in many areas, and land mines. But the refugee agency is providing assistance to those who want to make the trip and expects the number of people going home to rise dramatically this summer as the weather improves.