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UN Refugee Agency Appeals for Funds to Help Afghan Returnees - 2002-04-19

The United Nations said that in the past seven weeks, nearly 300,000 Afghan refugees have returned from Pakistan and Iran under a special repatriation program. The head of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said urgent funds are needed to handle the growing number of Afghan returnees.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said more than 280,000 refugees have gone home from Pakistan under the voluntary repatriation program. Another 10,000, he said, have left Iran in the past week.

Mr. Lubbers is in the region to assess the repatriation programs. He arrived in Pakistan from Afghanistan and also visited Iran. He said the security situation is improving in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan is safe for 70-to-80 percent, safe enough for returnees to make the choice, 'I go home.' You read news sometimes, you think it is [the security situation] deteriorating. I think it's not. Step by step, we can diminish that percentage of lack of security. We are in a process to make it more safe and secure," Mr. Lubbers said.

The U.N. refugee agency is providing returnees with plastic sheeting, stoves, blankets, quilts, food and $10 per person for transportation costs to their home areas. Mr. Lubbers said the United Nations expects more than one million refugees and displaced people within Afghanistan to return to their homes this year.

But he said the aid agency is running out of money to fund the repatriation program, which costs up to $25 million a month. "Up 'till now, it's functioning. It's a bit scary that the operation is going well, maybe even bigger numbers [will go home], and then you need more money. So, we really need money of the international donor community," Mr. Lubbers said.

There are nearly four million Afghans living in camps and cities in both Pakistan and Iran.