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Afghan Refugees in Pakistan Continue to Return Home - 2003-04-15

Voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan is underway, with the United Nations planning to assist in the return of 600,000 people this year. More than three million Afghans had been living in Pakistan, some for decades, after fleeing the Soviet occupation or subsequent civil war.

At a U.N. refugee registration facility just outside the Pakistani capital, a small group of 10 Afghan families is getting ready to leave for Afghanistan voluntarily. Most of them have lived in Pakistan for nearly two decades, escaping 23 years of conflict in their homeland. But the refugees say they want to go back now because conditions are improving.

Mohammed Ibrahim, 58, who comes from the Afghan capital, Kabul says peace is slowly returning to his country. His family left Afghanistan because of war, but he says the hostilities have almost disappeared now and that is why they are going back.

Mohammed Humanyun, 22, says his family came to Pakistan 18 years ago, and most of the time they lived in refugee camps under difficult conditions.

Mr. Humanyun says he is leaving Pakistan under no pressure. He says he has received English and computer education and hopes to get a job in Kabul.

Some refugees say difficult living conditions in the camps are forcing them to go back home.

The United Nations refugee agency has set up several temporary registration facilities in different cities in Pakistan to facilitate the repatriation. It is giving a travel grant of between $3 to $30 to returning refugees, depending on the distance to their home communities, along with some food and other assistance inside Afghanistan.

More than 8,000 Afghan refugees have gone home since the voluntary reparation process resumed a month ago. U.N. officials expect the number to increase in the coming few months.

But a U.N. repatriation worker, Fayyaz Ali Khan, says a lot will depend on the economic and security conditions in Afghanistan.

"We do feel that there are certain areas, which are absolutely safe," he said. "But since we are not completely sure of the safety, that is why we are not promoting [repatriation]. It is purely refugees' own decision. UNHCR is just facilitating all those refugees who are interested, we try to assist them to repatriate."

About 1.6 million Afghans have returned home, mostly from Pakistan, after the fall of the Taleban 18 months ago. Another two million are still in Pakistan. A majority of them have been in the country for up to two decades and have established businesses in Pakistan.

U.N. spokesman Salvatore Lambodo says these Afghans would want to see a lot of economic activity and stability in their country before they decide to leave Pakistan.

"They have been here for a very long time and they are also expecting a number of things in Afghanistan that have not happened yet," he said. "I think we have not seen for example in Afghanistan a great movement on the question of employment, we have not seen major changes in terms of reconstruction, reconstruction of roads etc. These are the kind of things that probably will bring much more people [back to Afghanistan]."

There are reports that ethnic Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan are suffering reprisals and harassment for their past support of the former Taleban government. Mr. Lambodo says this is also preventing some refugees from returning to those parts of Afghanistan.