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Afghan returnee numbers this year top 276,000 - UN refugee agency

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The United Nations refugee agency said today that some 276,700 Afghans returned to their homeland this year through its voluntary repatriation programme, 99 per cent of them coming from neighbouring Pakistan.

The remaining 1 per cent of returnees came from Iran and other countries, Ewen MacLeod, Acting Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Afghanistan, told a news conference in Kabul.

He attributed this year's numbers to three main factors: the high prices of food and fuel which have strongly impacted Pakistan's economy, the closure of the large Jalozai refugee camp in the Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and the "changing" security situation in Pakistan, particularly in NWFP, where the majority of Afghan refugees live.

Mr. MacLeod noted that over 5 million people have returned to Afghanistan since 2002, representing a 20 per cent increase in the country's overall population. Some 4.3 million of them were assisted through UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme for Afghan refugees, the world's largest for the past six years.

"I think it is very clear to everybody that an increase in a population with a refugee return programme of that dimension would represent a very sharp challenge for even a Western industrialized country. We are certainly not aware, in recent history, of any country that has absorbed so many people in such a short time.

"The solidarity demonstrated by the Afghan population in reabsorbing these huge figures is remarkable and without precedent anywhere else," he added.

He said it is clear that return and reintegration in Afghanistan will become more challenging. The returnees face many difficulties, including lack of job opportunities, shelter and basic services such as health care and education.

"In order to create sufficient employment opportunities the economy has to grow at a quicker pace to absorb more workers in labour markets," he stated.

Future challenges will be among the issues discussed at an international conference on return and reintegration, organized by the Afghan Government and UNHCR, which will be held in Kabul on 19 November.

UNHCR's Afghan repatriation programme has now been suspended for the winter and will resume next March. The agency estimates there are still 2.8 million registered Afghans living in Pakistan and Iran.