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UN-assisted Afghan repatriation ends

[Pakistan] Afghan refugees in Gujranwala prepare to leave for their homeland. IRIN
The repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan slows down as winter approaches
After five years in operation, the UN-assisted Afghan repatriation programme came to an end on Thursday, said UN officials in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.

“Today is the last scheduled departure for [UNHCR-assisted] voluntary Afghan repatriation across the country [Pakistan],” said Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the office of the United Nations High commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Islamabad.

The UN refugee agency has been operating the programme since 2002 under a special tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The tripartite accord will officially expire at the end of December 2006 but repatriations have already been stopped due to slow returns and the upcoming registration of Afghan citizens in Pakistan, starting on 15 October.

“Undoubtedly, the Afghan operation from Pakistan is the biggest such operation in UNHCR’s history, under which 2.8 million Afghans returned in a space of five years,” Tan maintained.

Under the programme, Afghan returnees were eligible for transport assistance ranging from US $4 to $37 per person, depending on the distance to their destination inside Afghanistan, as well as a monetary grant of $12 to help them with additional costs to re-establish their lives.

In the first year of the programme, returns were high with 1.6 million Afghans repatriating from Pakistan. Numbers dropped to around 340,000 in 2003, more than 380,000 in 2004 and about 450,000 in 2005.

By comparison, the number of returns during 2006 remained low, with only 132,000 Afghans repatriated, against initial UN expectations of 400,000.

Despite high returns in previous years, Pakistan still hosts some 2.5 million Afghans, as counted in last year’s census. Over 1 million of these Afghans continue to live in 74 UNHCR-administered refugee camps, mainly located in the two Pakistani provinces of Balochistan and North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The UN refugee agency is in negotiations with Islamabad and Kabul on new return arrangements beyond 2006, possibly shifting from individual travel assistance to area-based reintegration assistance.

“Repatriation is expected to resume next year in March, but with new modalities, which are still under discussion. Since realities on the ground [inside Afghanistan] are changing we need new arrangements to deal with [that],” UNHCR's spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, a countrywide registration of millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan will run from 15 October to 29 December, providing them with refugee ID cards valid for three years.

According to UNHCR, any future return assistance will only be given to Afghans who hold valid ID cards – which will be issued only to those Afghans who were counted in the census conducted in February and March 2005.

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

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