Number of UN-assisted Afghan returnees from Pakistan tops 3 million

Number of UN-assisted Afghan returnees from Pakistan tops 3 million

Afghan returnees
The number of Afghans helped by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to return from Pakistan since 2002 has passed the 3-million mark, but the agency warned today that 2 million other Afghans remain in exile in the neighbouring country, unwilling or unable to make the journey home.

UNHCR has processed 3,009,484 Afghan returnees since the Taliban regime fell at the end of 2001 and formal returns began, the agency reported from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Some 860,000 others have been assisted home from Iran during the same period.

The busiest year in Pakistan was 2002, when at least 1.56 million people returned to Afghanistan, and numbers have steadily declined since then until last year, when there were just over 133,000 UNHCR-assisted returnees.

But the rate has surged again ahead of a deadline later this month when Pakistani authorities have said all remaining 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. So far this year more than 135,000 Afghans have already returned.

UNHCR’s assistant representative in Pakistan, Kilian Kleinschmidt, said its operation has seen many ups and downs since 2002.

“These fluctuating trends reflect the voluntary nature of repatriation, and we have tried our best to help Afghans make informed decisions on if and when they should go home,” he said.

Mr. Kleinschmidt said hundreds of overloaded trucks are now approaching UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation centres in Pakistan every day as the 15 April deadline nears, making it difficult to sort through the applications.

“The challenge at the moment is to sift through hundreds of families every day to separate genuine returnees from those who are just here for the cash grant. We appeal to the Afghan community not to allow bogus returnees to block the repatriation process for those who genuinely want to be assisted home by 15 April.”

UNHCR provides successful applications with assistance averaging about $100 per person, and also works with the Afghan Government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to provide shelter, job opportunities and vocational training to returnees.

Officials are conducting interviews, fingerprint biometrics and iris verification technology to try to prevent fraud.

Mr. Kleinschmidt added that a programme will begin after 15 April to voluntarily repatriate Afghans who have registered with Pakistani authorities and hold proof of registration cards. But he warned that not all may return home and called for greater international assistance.

“Voluntary repatriation is the preferred solution to the protracted Afghan situation in Pakistan. At the same time, there will be groups of Afghans who won’t be able to go back and will need other solutions,” he warned.