With the number of Afghans repatriating from neighbouring countries now standing at well over half a million, UNHCR is increasingly concerned that operating funds will soon run out - something which could seriously derail a critical component of Afghanistan's reconstruction process.
"We are seriously concerned about the funding situation," Melita Sunjic, a spokeswoman for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told IRIN in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Thursday. "Given the pace and momentum in which Afghans are returning to their homeland, I'm afraid we will no longer be able to sustain this," she warned.
UNHCR plans to assist over a million Afghans on their return journey home this year, and has already scored a phenomenal success in doing so. The agency announced on Wednesday that in addition to the 500,000 refugees already home from Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian states, more than 150,000 internally displaced people had returned to their villages. This amounts to more than 650,000 returnees, over 54 percent of the UN refugee agency's goal for 2002.
But despite these impressive numbers, donor countries have reacted sluggishly to what could become a critical impasse unless further assistance is forthcoming.
"The fact that so many Afghans have chosen to return is a development everyone wanted from the very beginning. It's a vote of confidence," Sunjic said. "This is why we cannot understand why the donors are not acting faster."
Of the US $271 million UNHCR needs over the period ending December 2002, only $171 million has been received. And with current monthly operational costs of more than $20 million, those funds will soon be exhausted.
Commenting on the situation in New York, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers on Wednesday warned that more must be done inside the war- and drought-ravaged country.
"Many Afghans are returning home with next to nothing," Lubbers said. "Donors must ensure that the massive repatriation under way is sustainable for the long term. That means that rehabilitation and development aid must reach rural towns and villages immediately."
Meanwhile, pressure is building on the Afghanistan Interim Authority and humanitarian agencies to meet the expectations of war-weary Afghan people.
"It is urgent that the Afghan interim authority is supported and that development projects get underway so that the Afghan people see that the central government is delivering services and that donor aid is trickling down," Lubbers said.
"The returnees - both refugees and those internally displaced - cannot wait for ideal conditions to take hold - something that donors seem to be waiting for. We do not have that luxury. Aid agencies need resources now," said Filippo Grandi, the UNHCR chief of mission in Afghanistan.
UNHCR is currently spending $23.5 million to purchase beams and other shelter material for distribution to returnees who need to rebuild their homes. Afghans already receive plastic tarpaulins or tents on return, but many people across the country need to reconstruct their homes, particularly the more than half a million refugees who have been away for a long time.
Currently UNHCR is funding various projects throughout Afghanistan to provide protection and assist the reintegration of the planned 1.25 million returnees this year, as well as to assist some three million Afghans in neighbouring states.
At this critical juncture of Afghanistan's reconstruction process, the question now is whether the necessary funds will be available.
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