LAHORE, 2 August (IRIN) - In a further effort to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees across Pakistan, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has increased the activities of its mobile repatriation teams for those living in scattered urban and rural areas.
"Alongside seven regular repatriation centres across the country, another 14 mobile teams are working to facilitate Afghans living in urban and rural settlements in all four provinces wishing to return to Afghanistan with the assistance of the UN refugee agency," Babar Baloch, a UNHCR spokesman in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, said.
Governed by a tripartite agreement between the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNHCR, since 2002 the UN refugee agency has assisted millions of Afghan refugees return to their homeland from Pakistan under its voluntary repatriation assistance programme.
To avail themselves of assistance, Afghans wishing to repatriate register at one of seven easily accessible voluntary repatriation centres (VRCs) located across the country.
But for those living in remoter areas of the country, the agency has been operating 14 mobile teams - five in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), four in Balochistan, three in Punjab and two in Sindh province, depending on the size of the Afghan population in the area.
In recent weeks, the UN refugee agency has facilitated the return of several Afghan groups from the Punjabi cities of Chakwal, Mianwali, Khushab, Attock, Lahore and Gujranwala.
"Over 23,000 Afghans have returned from Punjab so far this year against about 18,000 from Sindh province," Baloch noted. The returns from the Afghan populous provinces of NWFP and Balochistan stood at about 127,000 and 46,000 respectively, he added.
"Since the repatriation programme is voluntary, the UNHCR teams help the Afghans make an informed decision by giving them information about security, social conditions and other related matters in their area of origin," he explained.
As part of the UNHCR assistance package, in addition to transport costs, returnees receive a small monetary grant to assist in re-establishing themselves in their homeland.
In a farewell gathering held on 28 July in the Punjabi city of Gujranwala, some 70 km from the provincial capital, Lahore, an Afghan group of some 22 families comprising of 150 individuals, returned to Kabul.
UNHCR representative in Pakistan, Guenet Guebre-Christos appreciated the spirit of the returning Afghans, particularly those having a relatively settled life in Pakistan.
"There is nothing honourable, dignified and joyful as a return to one's homeland. You are resilient, highly motivated people and today you have again demonstrated your motivation and resilience to go home, pick up and start all over again," she said, addressing the Afghans heading back.
But the challenge of assisting those remaining continues. According to this year's Afghan population census in Pakistan, of the 3 million Afghans still living in the country, the vast majority - 1.8 million - live in the NWFP, followed by 784,000 in Baluchistan, more than 207,000 in Punjab, 136,000 in Sindh and just over 13,000 in Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir.
UNHCR assisted 1.6 million Afghans from Pakistan repatriate to their homeland in 2002, followed by some 340,000 in 2003 and more than 390,000 in 2004. The UN refugee agency estimates some 400,000 will return in 2005.
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