The United Nations refugee agency says all governments should help repatriate any Afghan refugee who wants to return home. The agency said it is encouraging voluntary returns because the situation in Afghanistan has improved.

The U.N. refugee agency acknowledges that this is a change in its long-held view that the situation in Afghanistan was too unstable for countries to send refugees home.

The agency still said countries should not forcibly deport Afghan asylum seeks to Afghanistan. But, it said governments should help return any Afghan who voluntarily chooses to go back.

UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville said the agency changed its position because conditions in Afghanistan have improved during the past five months. "We are saying that it does not really make sense to have more than 1.25 million Afghans return voluntarily from the neighboring countries and to leave Afghans in the wider world unable to return home if they want to. So, we are suggesting that they open up the option of voluntary repatriation to all Afghans. That would include people not yet in the asylum system, people ready to return, and even recognized refugees - if they wish to go home, given the changed circumstances in the country," he said.

The refugee agency estimates about 150,000 Afghans have applied for asylum in about 90 countries during the past three years. This does not include Pakistan and Iran, which still host about 2.5 million Afghan refugees.

Mr. Colville said that it is more difficult for Afghans in Europe, North America, and Australia to return home and governments should help them. "We are certainly not saying Afghanistan is safe and perfect. There are problems in the north of the country, still violence taking place in some parts of the north and in some parts of central Afghanistan. The effects of the drought are still very serious. This country has chronic problems," he said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Colville said 1.25 million Afghan refugees have returned home from Pakistan and Iran since March 1. He said this is a strong indication that people can go back and wish to go back.

Also, he said the number of Afghan asylum seekers going to Europe has dropped dramatically. He said this is another sign Afghans are not as anxious as they once were.