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Afghan Refugees Return by the Thousands - 2002-04-23

Relief officials in Afghanistan say a third of a million refugees have returned home in the past eight weeks because of improving stability in the country. But they are also expressing concern that the influx may be too large and too soon for some areas.

United Nations refugee officials say they are seeing the largest voluntary return of refugees in years. And they fear that funds to help the returnees could run out by next month if the influx continues at the current pace.

A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Yusuf Hassan, says most of the returnees are coming from Pakistan, but large numbers are also arriving from Iran and Tajikistan. "There is growing security, particularly in cities like Jalalabad and Kabul," he said. "There is also confidence in the authority because there is now a recognized government. And now with the return of the king, a lot of people say that they feel it is safe to return."

Officials say an estimated one out of every four Afghans was displaced during the two decades of.conflict here. An estimated four million fled to Pakistan and Iran, while more than one million took refuge inside Afghanistan. Relief officials say refugees now are returning on their own will.

The U.N. refugee agency has received nearly two thirds of the nearly $300 million pledged for the program, but if the pace continues, officials say they could run out of money by mid-May.

In fact, Mr. Hassan says the U.N. refugee agency is discouraging refugees from returning to certain parts of Afghanistan. "Many parts of this country are [still] insecure," he said. "There are many provinces that we are not encouraging people to go back to. What has happened is that people were returning anyway. We are giving them a helping hand."

Refugee officials say they do not provide transportation to returnees. But they do provide support in the form of a cash allowance of a few hundred dollars, food and temporary shelter. Officials say the next phase of the program is to re-integrate the returnees into society, by providing materials so they can rebuild their homes and communities, and by providing services like health and education during this transitional period.