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9,000 Afghans return from Pakistan in UN programme

9,000 Afghans return from Pakistan in March in UN repatriation programme

Nearly 9,000 Afghan refugees have gone home in the first month of the final year of the United Nations-assisted repatriation programme from Pakistan, citing jobs and shelter as key factors influencing their decision in an operation that is expected to cover some 400,000 by the end of 2006.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resumed its voluntary return operation to Afghanistan for the fifth year on 1 March after a break over winter. Since 2002, more than 2.7 million Afghans have returned home from Pakistan. Some 2.6 million are believed to remain in the country.

“Everyone prefers her own country,” Amir Bibi, 30, said after travelling for more than seven hours with her five children, brother and cousins on a truck from Lahore in Punjab province to UNHCR’s Voluntary Repatriation Centre at Tarnol near Islamabad. “We waited so long to go because we had no land or shelter back home. But now my husband has found a job, so we're off.”

The sentiment was echoed by Akhter Mohammad, 45. “I have been to Afghanistan two times in the last 20 years to see if I can take my family to my homeland, where I would love to be buried,” he told UNHCR staff before leaving for the border. “I didn't see any conditions in which I could keep my family safe, but a few days ago my parents in Paktika [eastern Afghanistan] asked me to return. They found me a job as a madrassah [religious school] teacher.”

The tripartite agreement governing the programme with the Pakistani and Afghan governments was set to expire this month but was extended till December. UNHCR is negotiating with the two governments on new return arrangements beyond 2006, possibly shifting from individual travel assistance to area-based reintegration assistance.

Often, refugees are joining family members who returned earlier. “My father is already building our house back home,” said Attaullah, a street hawker in Quetta heading to Karg Bagh in eastern Afghanistan's Ghazni province. “It's not easy to be a refugee here. Now we have the chance to go back. I just hope my children will have schools to go to when we return.”

Under the current arrangement, each returning Afghan family receives between $4 and $37 in travel grant depending on the distance home. Each individual receives $12 in reintegration assistance.

UNHCR has also assisted in returns from Iran, from where 1.3 million Afghans have repatriated. Some 900,000 more are still estimated to be in Iran.

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