The campaign to facilitate the voluntary return of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees reached a new milestone on Monday when the combined number of Afghans returning from Pakistan and Iran reached 400,000. The joint repatriation programmes, between the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Pakistani and Iranian governments, aim to assist 800,000 return to Afghanistan this year.
"More than 20,000 Afghans a week are repatriating from Pakistan," the acting UNHCR spokesman, Aslam Denarzai, told IRIN in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. "I expect the 400,000 mark to be crossed this weekend," he maintained.
But the cumulative number of Afghan refugees who had repatriated from Pakistan and Iran, the two countries hosting the greatest number of them - about four million - had already surpassed that figure. As of Monday, 385,313 Afghans have been repatriated from Pakistan and 23,050 from Iran.
Of those returning from Pakistan, the vast majority were returning from the country's North West Frontier Province (NWFP). "More than 320,000 have returned from NWFP," Denarzai said. The programme, which began on 1 March, has met unprecedented enthusiasm from Afghans wanting to take advantage of an assistance package, comprising both food and non-food related items, as well as a small cash grant.
"The operation is going well, and our only concern at this point is the sustainability of the operation," he said. Earlier, UNHCR called on the international donor community for further assistance in maintaining the programme, which hopes to repatriate 400,000 Afghans from both Pakistan and Iran in 2002.
As part of its joint programme with the Pakistani government, UNHCR maintains three voluntary repatriation centres (VRCs) in NWFP, where Afghans wishing to participate in the programme register. These are Takhtabaig, the largest of them, 16 km west of the provincial capital, Peshawar, Azakhel, 40 km east of the city, and Nawapass, 180 km to the northwest. An additional VRC at Attock, 80 km east of Peshawar, would soon be added to that list. "Mobile teams are already working there, but it will take the form of a VRC very soon," Denarzai noted.
Additionally, there is one VRC at Balali, 15 km north of Baluchistan's provincial capital, Quetta, as well as one at Hub, 30 km north of the commercial capital Karachi, along the border between Baluchistan and the southeastern province of Sind. Operations were further enhanced by the presence of mobile teams - with about 15 working throughout the country at the moment. "These teams can be dispatched according to needs," he explained.
Meanwhile, in Iran, the momentum for the repatriation effort is also growing. The UNHCR spokesman, Mohammad Nouri, told IRIN from the capital, Tehran, that 2,465 Afghans had been repatriated on Monday - the largest number for a single day since the programme began on 9 April.
While Dogharun in Iran's northeastern Khorasan province remained the main crossing point for Afghans along the country's 900-km-plus frontier, a second exit point in Milak in southeastern Sistan-Baluchestan Province was expected to become operational soon, Nouri said.
There are currently nine VRCs throughout the country - located in the cities of Tehran, Mashhad, Zahedan, Esfahan, Shiraz, Qom, Kerman, Arak and Yazd. Efforts are currently under way to open a second centre in the capital to better respond to the demand of Afghans queuing up to be registered in Tehran's only VRC at Solimankhani.
Nouri said 25 percent of Afghan returnees were going to the Afghan province of Kabul, followed by 12 percent to the western province of Herat and 10 percent to Parvan in the east. Most of those participating in the programme lived in Tehran, followed by the cities of Zahedan and Kerman, he added.
Monday's repatriation figures were in addition to the ongoing number of Afghans who had spontaneously returned unassisted. According to Nouri, 54,463 Afghans have spontaneously returned from Iran since the beginning of this year alone.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions