Afghanistan + 1 more

Afghan returnees hit 280,000

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan, April 18 (UNHCR) - Noting that more than 280,000 people have "voted with their feet" to return home to Afghanistan in recent weeks, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers today thanked Pakistan for its decades of generosity to millions of Afghans.
On the last leg of his three-country mission through the region, Lubbers said more than 280,000 Afghans have returned home in the first seven weeks of assisted repatriation from Pakistan.

Chatting with returnees at the Takhta Baig registration centre close to Peshawar in northern Pakistan, Lubbers said, "Pakistan has hosted the largest single refugee group in the world for more than two decades, and we are very grateful to the people and the government of Pakistan."

"Now the time has come for many Afghans to return home. 280,000 have already voted with their feet for a new life in Afghanistan," he added.

Nine out of 10 returnees come through the Takhta Baig centre. Lubbers joined one of the verification teams, who have to screen up to 3,600 families per day, singling out people who are not returnees but want to benefit fraudulently from UNHCR assistance.

The High Commissioner also visited Nasir Bagh, a long-disputed refugee camp in downtown Peshawar. The camp has existed for 22 years, virtually since the beginning of the Afghan exodus in 1980. For some years the landowners had been reclaiming their land to build a new township, but the refugees could not leave as they had nowhere to go.

Now many of the refugees feel it is time to return. And they are taking their homes with them, dismantling their mud houses and taking beams, doors and windows. These are valuable assets when rebuilding their old houses back in Afghanistan.

Pointing to his door tied to the back of the truck, one refugee said jokingly, "Through the old door I will enter soon into my new house on my old plot in Kabul."

While in Nasir Bagh, Lubbers met the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Erkki Tuomioja, who was visiting Peshawar on the same day. Later the High Commissioner addressed UNHCR staff at the office, thanking them for their commitment and for coping well with the demanding workload of repatriation.

On Friday the High Commissioner is proceeding to Islamabad, where he is scheduled to meet the Interior Secretary Taseem Noorani, heads of other UN agencies and representatives of donor countries.

Lubbers will end his eight-day visit to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan on April 20.