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UNHCR Suspends Refugee Returns to Afghanistan


The United Nations has temporarily suspended its voluntary return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan, because of a roadblock in the tribal areas on the road to Afghanistan. Lisa Schlein reports from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The U.N. refugee agency says a local tribal dispute is hampering the returns. It says the roadblock along the Peshawar-Torkham highway has left hundreds of homebound Afghans stranded.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says more than 360 Afghan families were processed Monday for repatriation from Peshawar. But, he says they were unable to leave for home due to the roadblock.

"We have been taking care of some of those families until the road is reopened," said Ron Redmond. "And, to prevent more families from being stranded, we have suspended the repatriation through Peshawar starting today [Tuesday], and they will resume once the road is cleared. I do not know specifically what the dispute is about. But it has just affected security along part of that road. I do not think it has anything to do with the returnees. It is an internal tribal thing."

Redmond says the UNHCR is helping 45 needy families that had set out on the road and could not pass, distributing food as well as plastic sheets and blankets to help them through the night.

The UNHCR voluntary repatriation program was launched in early 2002, after the Taliban was overthrown. Since then, the UNHCR has repatriated 3.2 million Afghans from Pakistan. The agency helps the refugees return to their homes - and re-start their lives - in Afghanistan.

On a related issue, Redmond says the sprawling Jalozai refugee village in the North West Frontier Province was supposed to have closed Tuesday. Because of the road closure, he says the UNHCR has asked the Pakistani authorities to give the refugees more time to leave.

More than 70,000 Afghans living in Jalozai have been offered the option of voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan or relocation to an existing refugee village in Pakistan. Redmond says more than 3,000 people have repatriated in recent weeks. But, he says more than 30 families have asked to be relocated to Kot Chandna refugee village in Punjab province.

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