The number of Afghan refugees returning home from neighbouring countries so far in 2003 passed the quarter-million mark today, well below the overwhelming numbers of a year ago but still very high by standards of most refugee movements, the United Nations refugee agency reported.
Despite fears of deteriorating security in parts of Afghanistan voiced by many organizations, including the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the steady stream of refugees going home shows that many Afghans have concluded that their prospects are better in their own country than in the countries that have provided them with shelter since 1980, mainly Pakistan and Iran.
“The majority are poor,” said Shahab Zaman, a UNHCR registration clerk at a centre on the edge of Islamabad processing refugee requests for assistance to return. “They say there is work in Afghanistan, the day wages are higher there and the north of the country is comparatively peaceful.”
Last year in Pakistan alone UNHCR assisted more than 1.5 million Afghans to leave in the months after the collapse of the Taliban regime.
Although well over 2 million Afghans have returned since the start of organized repatriation in March 2002, more than that number are believed to remain in Pakistan and Iran. “It’s been 25 years. It’s going to take time. You can’t just send them home,” Mr. Zaman said as a truck full of refugees pulled out of the registration centre on its way to the Khyber Pass entrance into Afghanistan. “Otherwise we would end up with the same situation – they would just come back.”
The latest repatriation season, which follows the harsh Afghan winter, had a slow start because of the regional uncertainty triggered by the Iraq war, but numbers grew steadily until they reached the current level in the past month.
With better controls in place, there is greater confidence this year that those going home intend to resettle permanently rather than to return later to Pakistan as some did last year. UNHCR believes the introduction at all locations in Pakistan of iris scanning technology, which detects those trying to receive return assistance a second time, has served as a strong deterrent to any abuse.
UNHCR teams in Afghanistan are running programmes to help reintegration, including providing shelter kits, tools and food aid under the UN World Food Programme. The agency plans to construct or rehabilitate up to 60,000 shelters and 40,000 wells this year in cooperation with the Afghan Government.