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UNHCR Urges Voluntary Repatriation of Afghans from Pakistan - 2002-03-01

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has begun a new program to help Afghan refugees return home from neighboring Pakistan. Rhe International Organization for Migration says it has begun helping internally displaced Afghans start a new life.

The head of the U.N. refugee agency, Ruud Lubbers, calls this voluntary repatriation, "a new beginning for Afghanistan and the beginning of the end of exile for many of three and a half million Afghan refugees."

The first U.N.-organized return saw little more than 150 Afghan refugees head home, but that number is expected to swell over the coming weeks with the arrival of the spring planting season and increased stability inside the country.

UNHCR spokesman, Kris Janowski, says interest in returning home among Afghans living in Pakistan is expected to grow quickly. "There were hundreds of people watching the registration and sort of milling around and trying to figure out whether they should do it themselves," he said. "So by Monday, it may actually pick up and gather some momentum. These people will be given $20 cash once they get into Afghanistan, basically to pay for their trip to wherever they are going. They will also be given food from the World Food Program and other supplies to sort of keep them afloat for a few months."

Mr. Janowski did express UNHCR's concern over the United Arab Emirates' deportation of more than 1,200 Afghans over the past week. He says the UNHCR is calling on all countries to suspend forced expulsions.

Mr. Janowski says many of the Afghans involved lack financial resources to return home unless they get U.N. assistance. He says they may also face real threats of ethnic harassment once inside Afghanistan so any return must be carefully organized.

The World Food Program (WFP) says it has 300 tons of food to aid returning Afghans for three months. Once the people are back, the WFP says it will set up food-for-work programs aiding Afghans to rebuild their country.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says it is also helping the return of the first group of internally displaced Afghans. Nearly 270 Afghans left the largest camp in the country outside of Herat in western Afghanistan on Thursday. Niurka Pineiro of the IOM says most of the internally displaced are going to areas that had been hard-hit by drought for the past three years. "Now they are getting, of course, food, and reintegration kits, but they also are getting seeds and agricultural tools so they can get back to work once they are back home," she said.

Ms. Pineiro says IOM is providing shelter reconstruction kits for those Afghans returning to places where their homes were destroyed by years of fighting.