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UNHCR Resumes Voluntary Repatriation to Afghanistan


The U.N. refugee agency says it is resuming the voluntary repatriation of Afghans who have been living in Pakistan. These assisted returns will take place in two phases and are linked to the recently concluded registration drive that shows more than two million Afghans remain in Pakistan. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond says the registration process has been important to determine which refugees are eligible for assistance.

He says every Afghan who applies for voluntary repatriation has to pass a verification test that involves scanning the person's eye.

He says the iris scan, which was introduced two years ago, has been very effective in weeding out individuals UNHCR previously helped return.

"We have a huge data base now of these scans," he said. "I don't know what proportion it turns up of people who try to circle back and go through the system again so they can get assistance. But, it has been very effective. Most of the Afghans are aware of that, and so, I think, it has substantially reduced the number of, what we call, double-backers."

The UNHCR gives returnees a generous assistance package to help them restart their lives. The so-called double-backers would sign up for multiple voluntary returns to get more of this free aid. The package includes tools, building materials, and, in some cases, cash grants to pay for transportation to home villages.

Redmond says hundreds of thousands of Afghans who remain in Pakistan and Iran do not want to return home. He says they have lived in exile for more than two decades and have planted new roots. He says many have businesses and jobs. Many have raised families and feel more at home in Pakistan and Iran than in Afghanistan.

For those who do return, Redmond says, life is not easy.

"A large number of them go to Kabul. And, Kabul, you have probably seen stories over the past few years, has got a lot of people living in really sub-standard housing, so it is very difficult for them," Redmond said.

"But, what we have encouraged is people to go back to rural areas. And, then you have got to have the infrastructure in place, the irrigation, schools for the children -- all of these things in place. It has been slow, but there has been progress in Afghanistan," he added.

Redmond says UNHCR teams travel to return areas to check on the progress of returnees. The agency is planning to repatriate about 250,000 Afghans from Pakistan and Iran this year.

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