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UN to Resume Repatriation of Afghan Refugees - 2004-03-04

The United Nations plans to resume the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in Pakistan this week. But the total number of refugees still inside Pakistan remains unknown.

Millions of Afghans left their country for neighboring Pakistan and Iran during the civil wars of the 1980's, and again during the 2001 conflict that ousted the former Taleban regime.

Since then, some 1.9 million refugees have returned home from Pakistan, and officials from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees say this year's returnees could number between 400,000 and 500,000.

While the U.N. puts the number of Afghans currently living in Pakistani refugee camps at a little over one million, the country's top U.N. refugee official Jack Redden says a significant number may be living on their own, in the cities. "The number of urban refugees is totally unknown," he says. "We just have no idea how many there are."

The U.N. agency and the government of Pakistan are discussing holding a census of these urban refugees later this year, and Mr. Redden says the number may be larger than the number of those living in camps. "Last year we expected that repatriation would focus on the camps, but in reality 70 percent came from urban areas again," he says. "So that's also an indication of the size of the urban caseload."

The U.N. program, which is returning from its winter break, ended earlier than usual last year due to security concerns following the killing of a U.N. refugee worker in southeastern Afghanistan.

The U.N. agency has since approved resumption of the program after weighing the security situation.