UNHCR suspends Afghan repatriation effort

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has temporarily suspended its voluntary Afghan repatriation programme from Pakistan for the winter.

“This is something we do every year before the weather turns. The programme will restart again in March next year,” Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, said in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. The suspension takes effect on 31 October.

More than 3.2 million Afghans have returned to their homeland from Pakistan since the programme first began in March 2002 - one of the largest efforts of its kind for the agency.

In the first year of the programme, more than 1.5 million people returned to Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime in December 2001.

Returnees receive transport assistance, as well as a small monetary grant to facilitate their return. This year, UNHCR increased the assistance package for returnees three-fold to an average of US$100 per person, including a fixed amount of $87 to help with the initial reintegration, as well as a travel grant that varies according to the distance to the final destination.

Numbers returning in decline

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But the numbers returning home is still in decline. During registration this year, security was the top concern for Afghans who said they did not plan to return in the near future.

“Indeed, the situation has deteriorated in parts of Afghanistan, especially the south, southeast and increasingly the central regions,” Tan said. “Others said they cannot return for economic or social reasons, such as the lack of jobs, land, shelter, schools and clinics in Afghanistan,” she added.

In 2006, 133,000 people participated in the programme while another 146,000 registered Afghans were assisted in 2007. An additional 203,000 unregistered Afghans returned during a government-approved grace period from 1 March to 15 April this year for those who had not registered with the Pakistani authorities and UNHCR.

“After the mass returns of 2002 and 2003, we’re seeing return numbers stabilise at around 150,000 per year,” not including those who were unregistered and returned this year, the UNHCR official said.

“The large majority of those who could and wanted to return have already done so,” Tan said, adding there were still two million registered Afghans in Pakistan today.