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UNHCR Seeks Long-Term Development Aid for Afghan Refugees Returning Home - 2002-12-18

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, says it hopes to help 1.5 million Afghans return home next year and to expand programs aimed at helping these refugees get re-started in their new lives. The UNHCR is seeking $195 million to carry out these programs and to assist millions of Afghan refugees who remain in neighboring countries.

A record 1.8 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan in the last nine months. In addition, another 250,000 internally displaced Afghans have also returned to their original homes.

UNHCR Spokesman Peter Kessler says he expects many more Afghans will be interested in going back to the country they fled years ago.

"We are going to be working to help people go back and expanding ties with development agencies so that people have the appropriate kinds of long-term assistance to keep them anchored back home," he said. "And, so we will be providing immediate assistance ourselves and encouraging development parties like the World Bank and other agencies to establish the necessary programs to give people a solid base."

In line with these development schemes, Mr. Kessler says the UNHCR has spent millions of dollars on water projects, cleaning out wells and installing irrigation systems. He says it is one thing to help people return home. It is quite another to keep them there. He says the agency is doing what it can to assist returnees and provide some economic incentives to keep them grounded in their society.

"UNHCR is distributing aid to targeted communities, communities in need, especially displaced persons and other groups," Mr. Kessler said. "We are producing, using cash for work programs, producing stoves in local workshops which are distributed to people in need. We also have thousands of tents and tens of thousands of plastic tarpaulins on hand in case people need temporary emergency shelter over the winter."

About four million Afghans still live outside their country. Most are in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, which would like the refugees to return home. Mr. Kessler says while this may be a desirable goal, Afghanistan is still a very poor country, beset by drought and security problems. He says the agency believes all returns should be voluntary and no country should push the refugees back.