About 4,400 families (48,320 individuals) returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan with UN assistance from March to December 2009. The annual return rate from Iran was also low at 1,007 households (5,561 individuals), according to UNHCR.
The overall return rate in 2009 was the lowest since UNHCR started its voluntary repatriation programme for Afghan refugees eight years ago.
About 1,834,537 refugees returned from Pakistan and Iran immediately after the fall of the Taliban in 2002, but only about 278,000 individuals returned in 2008.
About six million Afghans fled their country in the 1980s and 1990s due to war, according to aid agencies. Since 2002 about five million Afghans have returned to their country under one of the largest repatriation programmes in UNHCR's history.
However, over 2.5 million Afghan refugees still live in the two neighbouring countries (about 1.7 million in Pakistan and 900,000 in Iran).
"Worsening security in Afghanistan has been the biggest challenge which has increasingly hindered refugees' repatriation," Noor Mohammad Haidari, senior adviser at the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR), told IRIN.
Insecurity in large swathes of the country has impeded reconstruction and development projects and has inhibited the government's ability to implement reintegration programmes for returnees, he said.
Other obstacles are the lack of livelihood opportunities in Afghanistan, landlessness and low levels of basic services, especially education, Charlotte Esther Olsen, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Afghanistan, told IRIN.
The inability of aid agencies to access many provinces and assist returnees is a contributory factor, aid workers say.
Housing is another major challenge for many Afghan refugees.
"If I had a house in Afghanistan or a piece of land to build a house, I would not have stayed in Pakistan for a single day," said Gul Nabi, a refugee at a settlement in the outskirts of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
Land distribution scheme
Both UNHCR and MoRR said tens of thousands of returnee families had received land and assistance to build their houses over the past few years.
"We have distributed land plots to over 100,000 households in townships which are designated for returnees across the country," said Haidari of the MoRR.
UNHCR said it had helped build 190,000 housing units for returnees since 2002 and would assist 10,000 families to build their houses in 2010.
However, some refugees said the land distribution scheme was highly bureaucratic, corrupt and ineffective.
"Applications take several months and eventually those that know officials or bribe them receive plots," alleged one refugee in Pakistan. "If we return now where should we live until the government gives us a piece of land," asked another refugee.
Lack of basic services in the designated townships has also disappointed many returnees. Some have complained that the settlements were located in deserts and/or far away from urban centres, where there were few, if any, jobs.
"Returning refugees need access to schools for their children, access to health services for their families, and access to employment opportunities," said Ewen MacLeod, UNHCR's representative in Afghanistan.
MoRR conceded that of the 58 designated returnee settlements only 29 had been inhabited.
"With one in three Afghans having been displaced at some time in their lives, resolving land access and housing concerns for returnees could significantly improve the human security of millions of ordinary Afghans," said NRC's Olsen.
Returns set to continue
Despite the slump in the number of returnees, the UNHCR and the government say refugees will continue to return in 2010.
"When we look at next year we do anticipate that there will continue to be a significant number of Afghan families who will wish to return home," said UNHCR's MacLeod.
"Refugees cannot live in Iran and Pakistan indefinitely, they will have to return to their country sooner or later," said MoRR's Haidari.
In March UNHCR had anticipated that over 210,000 refugees would return in 2009, but the actual numbers turned out to be much lower than expected.