Afghanistan + 2 more

More than 300,000 Afghan refugees return from Pakistan, Iran

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ISLAMABAD, July 11 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) announced today that it has helped more than 200,000 Afghan refugees return from Pakistan to their homeland so far this year. During the same time, more than 113,000 Afghans have returned from Iran, with 67,000 of them going back with UNHCR's help and almost 46,000 heading back on their own.
Although the numbers repatriating this year are far below the extraordinary level of last year, when more than 1.5 million refugees were assisted to return from Pakistan, the number of Afghans going back in 2003 is still very high by historic standards.

In a separate effort, UNHCR is also relocating more than 18,000 Afghan asylum-seekers who had been stranded in the "waiting area" at Chaman on the Pakistani-Afghan border since early in 2002, taking some of them to a refugee camp inside Pakistan and the rest to a new community inside Afghanistan.

Unlike Afghans returning through the repatriation programme, the Afghans who were stranded in the "waiting area" site were never formally termed refugees because they had not formerly entered Pakistan by the time the government decided in February 2002 to close the border to new arrivals.

The area of waste land, right on the border at Chaman in Balochistan Province, was always considered unsuitable for refugees. It was insecure - bodies from a battle inside Afghanistan were dumped in the "waiting area" last month - and UNHCR was unable to provide full assistance because of Pakistan's insistence that it not become a permanent settlement.

The last of the 8,102 residents of the "waiting area" who chose to move to Mohammad Kheil, a camp set up in Pakistan to host refugees from the 2001 war against the Taliban, are scheduled to be transported in a UNHCR convoy on Saturday.

Of the nearly 11,000 people who asked to move to the settlement of Zhare Dasht near the Afghan city of Kandahar, the last are expected to be relocated by 23 July since the movements began on 30 June. By Wednesday, 4,704 Afghans have been moved to Zhare Dasht and the five day per week convoys resume on Saturday.

After those who registered leave, UNHCR will no longer be responsible for anyone remaining at the squalid border camp. Pakistani authorities have already begun demolishing the makeshift shelters of rags and mud that the Afghans had erected.

Iran and Pakistan have hosted millions of Afghan refugees since 1980. UNHCR believes there were 1.1 million Afghan refugees in Iran and 1.2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan at the start of this year. Both countries also have large numbers of Afghan nationals who are not considered refugees.