The United Nations refugee agency announced today that more than 2.5 million Afghans have returned to their homeland since a repatriation programme began in March last year.
At a press briefing in Geneva, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the number of people returning from Iran has just passed 600,000. The agency said the number returning from Pakistan topped 1.9 million today.
Spokesman Kris Janowski said most refugees returned to central and northern Afghanistan, but that about a quarter of them remained in the country’s west, which borders Iran. UNHCR estimates about 1.1 million refugees remain in camps inside Pakistan, and another 1 million live in Iran.
UNHCR's representative in Pakistan, Hasim Utkan, described the current period as "especially rewarding" given the volume of refugees who left Afghanistan for Pakistan since 1979. "This has been a tremendously exciting time to be here," he said.
The pace of returning refugees has slowed down, as UNHCR expected, with the imminent arrival of winter in Afghanistan. The agency supplies returning refugees with transport, a travel grant, food, relief items and the opportunity to take part in a shelter programme.
UNHCR organized the repatriation scheme in concert with the Governments of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, and it ends in 2005.