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Pakistan, Afghanistan Reach Agreement on Refugee Situation - 2002-12-13

Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United Nations refugee agency have reached agreement on the repatriation of at least 1.8 million Afghans, most of them living in refugee camps in Pakistan. The agreement will be signed in Geneva next month.

Afghan minister for refugees, Enayatullah Nazari and his Pakistani counterpart Aftab Ahmed Sherpao made the announcement at a joint news conference in the Pakistani capital. They said that the tripartite agreement, outlines a plan to voluntarily repatriate a minimum of 400,000 refugees annually over the next three years.

Mr. Sherpao says that Pakistan will ensure that refugees return to Afghanistan voluntarily.

"During the agreed three year transition period Afghan refugees remaining in Pakistan should continue to be provided with adequate assistance to mitigate their hardships and ensure that their decision to return is purely voluntary," Mr. Sherpao said.

More than 1.6 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan since March this year, but at least 1.8 million still remain in the country. U.N. officials say returnee numbers have dramatically come down because of the start of the harsh winter and a lack of basic facilities in Afghanistan. Many of the remaining refugees in Pakistan are reluctant to go home, citing security and economic considerations.

Pakistani minister Sherpao says he hopes the return of the remaining Afghan refugees will take place without much problems.

"I think the urge to go back is there. As you have seen in the last eight months 1.6 million Afghan refugees have returned voluntarily," he said. "The repatriation that has taken place so far, they were mainly from outside the camps. The next bulk would be from the refugee camps that are there in various parts of the country. So I don' see any problem in that."

Afghan officials say the repatriation agreement will be signed in Geneva mainly to ensure maximum commitment from the international community.

Afghan minister Nazari says the security situation is improving in Afghanistan. But he says his country 's capacity to absorb returnees is still limited because of its devastated infrastructure and shattered economy.

Mr. Nazari says the Afghan government needs massive help from the international community for reconstruction projects that will provide water, education and health facilities.