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Thousands of Afghan Refugees Return from Pakistan - 2002-03-09


The United Nations says that in the past week nearly 14,000 Afghan refugees have returned from Pakistan under a special aid program.

The repatriation is part of a major operation, which the U.N. Refugee agency has launched to help those Afghans who are willing to go back to their country.

Milita Sunjic is a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Islamabad. She told VOA that despite the security problems in some parts of Afghanistan, more and more returnees are registering themselves at a U.N. facility (Takhtabaig) near the Pakistani border town of Peshawar. "We are not encouraging or promoting repatriation at this point in time and this is very important to say, but there have been nearly 160,000 people who have returned this year on their own from Pakistan to Afghanistan," she said. "So what we say is if people want to return on their own, if they voluntarily go back to Afghanistan, then we at least want to assist them and that's what we are doing."

Ms. Sunjic said that once refugees cross the border, families of five people or more receive $100 cash to help with their traveling expenses.

The United Nations has set up special relief centers in Afghanistan where the returnees can get a special kit containing blankets, plastic sheeting and other items along with a three-month supply of wheat flour.

Ms. Sunjic said the situation in Afghanistan is far from safe. That is why, she says, returnees are also being advised and discouraged from going into certain parts of the country (provinces such as Paktia, Khost, Paktika, Zabul, Uruzgan, Nimroz, Helmand, Farah and the regions of Tora Bora and Sholgara). "We think that these areas cannot be considered safe enough for the return yet," she said. "This is exactly why we are not organizing repatriation or we are not promoting it. We are just saying, if people really and voluntarily want to go back, at least they should have some assistance. So refugees should be fully aware that they are going to a situation that also might be dangerous."

Ms. Sunjic said that a similar program is due to start next month to repatriate Afghan refugees in Iran. She said that under the plan the United Nations expects more than one-million refugees and displaced people within the country to return to their homes this year.

There are nearly four-million Afghans living in camps in both Pakistan and Iran. Most of them have fled their country because of factional fighting combined with the effects of the worst drought Afghanistan has experienced in three decades. An estimated one-million people live in displacement camps within the war-ravaged country.

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