The U.N. refugee agency announced a milestone has been reached in its efforts to provide shelter for returnees and internally displaced people in Afghanistan. After eight years of work the UNHCR has completed the 200,000th home for a returnee family.
During the past eight years, 4.5 million Afghan refugees have returned home. Most had spent long years in exile, mainly in Pakistan and Iran.
The mass return of this huge refugee population, believed to be the largest in the world, has strained the country's resources to the limit. In 2002, the U.N. refugee agency began a shelter program as part of its efforts to ease the return of the refugees.
UNHCR Spokesman Adrian Edwards said the program, which is an important element in the return of millions of refugees, has cost $250 million. While costly, he said the program has benefited 1.4 million people.
"The prospect of a secure home is regularly cited by returnees in Iran and Pakistan as one of their primary requirements before making a decision to return to Afghanistan," said Edwards. "This year alone we have helped more than 17,000 vulnerable returnee families with shelter assistance. Much of the actual work of construction is carried out by beneficiaries themselves."
Despite insecurity, Edwards said that Afghans continue returning every year in significant numbers from neighboring Pakistan and Iran. He said the biggest wave of returns was between 2002 and 2005. Nonetheless, he noted more than 112,000 people have returned to Afghanistan this year.
"The return of millions of Afghans has increased the estimated population of Afghanistan by some 20 percent. Returnees have contributed importantly in many economic sectors, bringing skills, know-how, and capital accumulated during their life in exile. But this huge population movement has also challenged the country's socio-economic absorption capacities, particularly on poor rural communities with limited resources."
Edwards said the UNHCR is focusing its shelter program on rural areas because of the significant numbers of families that have returned there from both Pakistan and Iran.
The UNHCR said it believes in the future that refugees will be reluctant to return to Afghanistan unless security improves and there is continued economic and social development.
UNHCR spokesman Edwards describes current humanitarian conditions as fragile and says the agency plans to continue its housing program next year.