The programme, initiated in 2002 in both Pakistan and Iran, passed the landmark number today with the departure of the 207,210th Afghan refugee from Pakistan so far this year. In addition, more than 1.2 million Afghans have returned from Iran, bringing to over 3.7 million the total returns to Afghanistan from Iran and Pakistan.
"This is an unprecedented number of people returning to their homeland and a testament both to the improving conditions in Afghanistan and the desire of Afghan refugees to participate in the rebuilding of their country," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in Geneva.
"Even the 200,000 Afghans who have received UNHCR assistance to go home from Pakistan in 2005 make this our largest voluntary repatriation programme anywhere in the world this year," he said. "This programme continues to meet the needs of most Afghans in Pakistan even as we discuss with the government of Pakistan solutions for those who still remain."
The UNHCR programme was launched more than three years ago from both Iran and Pakistan - the two main countries hosting Afghan refugees - following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which gave the chance for peace after more than 22 years of war that had forced millions of Afghans into exile.
Nearly 1.6 million Afghans returned from Pakistan with UNHCR in 2002, followed by some 340,000 in 2003 and more than 390,000 last year. UNHCR estimates that 400,000 Afghans will return from Pakistan in 2005.
The UNHCR repatriation programme from Pakistan is governed by a Tripartite Agreement grouping UNHCR and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The accord expires next March and the parties are negotiating what arrangements will follow.
Under the programme, Afghans wishing to return from Pakistan receive travel grants ranging between US$3 and $30 per person, depending on the distance to the destination in Afghanistan, plus a $12 per capita grant to help them re-establish themselves in their homeland. All returnees over the age of six years are given iris recognition tests to ensure that they have not previously received repatriation assistance.
While voluntary repatriation is the preferred solution for Afghans in neighbouring countries, UNHCR has begun talks with the governments of Iran and Pakistan on how to manage Afghans who remain after the Tripartite Agreements expire.
Afghanistan, which was an extremely poor country even before it was devastated by decades of war, could take many years of development before it can absorb all those Afghans who remain outside its borders.
By Jack Redden