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Surge in number of Afghans seeking UN help to return from Pakistan

Surge in number of Afghans seeking UN help to return from Pakistan

The United Nations refugee agency has had to open an extra repatriation centre in Pakistan and extend the opening hours of others to handle the larger than expected number of Afghans wanting help to return home ahead of a deadline later this month.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Ron Redmond told reporters today in Geneva that 58,956 people were repatriated last month with the agency’s help, and many more are arriving every day at its Pakistani facilities.

A new repatriation centre has opened in the country’s North West Frontier Province, joining an existing centre in the same province. Mr. Redmond said each centre can process up to 10,000 returning Afghans every day, and a separate centre in Balochistan can deal with about 1,500 people.

The numbers have been swelling ahead of the 15 April deadline, after which Pakistani authorities have said that all Afghans who did not take part in an earlier registration exercise or who have not agreed to return home with UNHCR assistance will be deemed to be illegal immigrants.

UNHCR gives assistance of about $100 per person to Afghans when they reach home after they have provided proof that they were residing in Pakistan around the time of the 2005 census of Afghans living in that country.

Mr. Redmond said “a high number of bogus returnees” were clogging up the repatriation process to try to receive the return assistance package, prompting UNHCR officials to conduct thorough interviews, physical verification and fingerprint biometrics to prevent abuse.

Voluntary repatriation for those Afghans who have already registered and received proof of registration cards – which grants the bearer temporary protection in Pakistan until the end of 2009 – will begin after 15 April.