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Refugee Agencies Report More Afghans Returning Home - 2002-03-19

The United Nations refugee agency says more Afghans are returning home than anticipated, with a one-day record 9,000 leaving Pakistan on Monday alone. Refugee agency officials say stability and the spring planting season are the main draws for those returning.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, reports that nearly 60,000 Afghans have left Pakistan to return home since the beginning of this month. That is more than one-half the annual average of 100,000 who returned to Afghanistan each year during the past five years.

UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski said the agency is opening more registration centers to cope with the growing numbers of those wanting to return home.

"Yesterday alone, there were 9,000 people going back, the largest daily number yet. In fact we think that our estimate on how many people will return to Afghanistan this year is probably understated. If this pace keeps up, there will be more people going back than originally estimated," Mr. Janowski said.

Mr. Janowski said the UNHCR had anticipated the return of about 400,000 Afghans this year. About 3.5 million Afghan refugees live in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

Mr. Janowski said the main reason why Afghans are heading home is because they feel their country is safer than before. "Of course, there were always people going back to Afghanistan especially during springtime. But now, with the fall of the Taleban regime and the stability, the international presence, the presence of aid, also the logistical help they are getting from IOM, the aid from the World Food Program and various other organizations - all this is basically an encouragement for people to go back," he said.

The U.N. refugee agency provides Afghan families with $20 upon return and supplies like wheat, cooking and heating stoves, and warm clothing to help them re-start their lives.

The International Organization for Migration, IOM, is aiding Afghans displaced inside the country return to their home villages. It, too, is reporting record numbers of Afghans lining up in the northern towns of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz and in the western town of Herat for help in heading home.

IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said the agency organized the return of 3,200 Afghans Tuesday in Mazar-e-Sherif - the largest repatriation in a single day.

"They want to go back to their lands, they want to have seeds, they want to start basically sowing. If they miss this window of opportunity it would be very difficult for them over the next few months to catch up. So that's why most of the returnees come from rural areas and most note that now is the time to go back," Mr. Chauzy said.

IOM provides shelter materials, 150 kilograms of wheat, seeds, and agricultural tools to help Afghans begin their new lives. It also monitors their re-entry to ensure a safe start.