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High Costs Bog Down Afghan Relief Efforts, Returning Refugees - 2002-05-09


The agency responsible for the care and return of hundreds of thousands of displaced people in western Afghanistan has said it has suspended its operations Thursday because of a lack of funds. Relief officials say the suspension is largely due to excessive fees by local transportation companies.

Senior relief officials in Afghanistan flew to Herat Thursday to try to resolve a standoff between relief agencies and local transportation companies. The visit came as the agency caring for hundreds of thousands of displaced Afghans, the International Organization for Migration, IOM, suspended all but emergency support.

The senior IOM official in Herat, Danny Gill, told VOA that a lack of funds was the main cause for the suspension, but said this was due primarily to high transportation costs.

"We are stuck with rising costs of transportation and we're trying to negotiate the prices down so that we can continue operations," Mr. Gill said.

Relief officials said, and local government sources confirm that local trucking companies have been charging as much as five times the rate charged in the rest of the country. The truckers say the higher prices are due to the poor condition of the region's roads. Relief officials acknowledge that somewhat higher fees are reasonable, but say trucking companies have formed a cartel that is inflating prices artificially.

Sources on both sides said an emergency meeting last Monday resulted in an offer by truckers to reduce fees by 50 percent, but that this was rejected by the relief agencies. Relief officials said pledges are down because donors are questioning the high transportation costs.

More than 30,000 Afghan refugees in Iran have returned in the past three weeks and more than 40,000 internally displaced people have returned to their homes in drought-stricken parts of western Afghanistan, since the beginning of the year. Agencies are trying to return as many Afghans as possible so that they may participate in elections for the grand national council, or Loya Jirga, that next month is to choose a transitional government.

The agencies also want the returnees to reach their homes before the planting season ends for the year. Otherwise, they say, they will need food assistance through the coming year.

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