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Afghanistan Still Unsafe for Returning Refugees, says UN - 2003-01-06

The United Nations refugee agency said it is not encouraging Afghan refugees to return home. Agency officials say the country is still unsafe and living conditions are bad.

The U.N. refugee agency said Afghans should consider the difficulties they are likely to face before deciding to go home.

The agency said more than two million refugees returned to Afghanistan last year, only to find a country in ruins. Some areas still are suffering from drought, jobs are scarce, health care is inadequate and there is a widespread lack of clean water and sanitation.

A spokesman for the refugee agency, Peter Kessler, said that while vast parts of the country are safe, some areas remain insecure. "We have seen tens of thousands of people flee northern parts of Afghanistan, mainly ethnic-Pashtuns who fled due to reports of persecution and even outright acts of violence against them and their families. So in many areas, security is a real concern. The government has agreed to establish a commission to look at the return of people to parts of the north where they fled because of ethnic persecution. We hope that will be a real step forward in helping people go home," Mr. Kessler said.

The U.N. refugee agency said it expects another 1.5 million Afghan refugees to return home this year, mainly from Pakistan and Iran. It said it is concerned that a large and hasty influx could put too much pressure on Afghanistan's crumbling infrastructure.

Mr. Kessler said his agency fears that Western countries, believing the Afghan refugee problem is over, may try to force the refugees to return home prematurely. "Our advice to countries further afield in regards to rejected asylum seekers is that any returns of rejected asylum seekers should be paced, it should wait until after the winter, and of course, it should be accompanied by appropriate amounts of both development and economic aid so that Afghanistan can be back on its feet and these people will have something to go back to," he said.

Mr. Kessler said this is a particularly bad time for people to go back to Afghanistan. He said the country is in the grip of a bitterly cold winter. He said hundreds of thousands of returnees and internally displaced people are facing severe hardships and aid agencies are struggling to provide them with help to get through the winter.