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UN Refugee Chief to View Afghan Repatriation Effort - 2002-04-13

The United Nation refugee chief travels Friday to Iran where he begins an eight-day mission in the region to witness the largest Afghan repatriation effort underway.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says some 223,000 Afghan refugees have returned home since the start of a voluntary assisted repatriation program six weeks ago. But the agency says it is concerned whether conditions are in place for them to stay.

UNHCR head Ruud Lubbers will be visiting Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to see first hand how the repatriation is going. The agency's spokesman, Ron Redmond, said Mr. Lubbers wants to know that the growing numbers of Afghans going home will be receiving longer term support to rebuild their lives in Afghanistan. "He also wants to emphasize and have a look at the conditions that are existing in there to ensure that those people who are going back can make it sustainable. In other words, we can help these people get back but they also have got to have the basic infrastructure in place once they do get home to ensure that they can stay there and really make a go of it," he said.

There are over 3.5 million Afghan refugees living in Iran and Pakistan. The International Organization for Migration, IOM, is assisting the U.N. refugee agency with some 400,000 Afghans expected to return home from Iran this year. IOM helps the refugees go to their hometowns once they reach the Afghan border.

IOM spokeswoman Niurka Pineiro said her agency has so far helped 45,000 internally displaced Afghans return home since January. But, she warns, IOM may have to close down its repatriation operations at the end of the month because it is running out of money. "We have a terrible funding crisis," she said. "We will be at zero on the 30th of April for care and maintenance and transportation money. So that means that we will dramatically curtail the return of IDPs and the care and maintenance that we provide to those who are still in the camps"

Ms. Pineiro says IOM is launching an appeal for $21 million to continue the return and integration of Afghans to their homes.