"The repatriation that started is focused on the camps because last year most of the returns came from cities," agency spokesman, Jack Redden told IRIN in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. "It's a phased introduction of repatriation, which will include all of the camps and the major cities where Afghan refugees live."
His comments follow local media reports that UNHCR had put off the repatriation of Afghan refugees living outside the camps in the country's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the adjacent Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan. "The urban population will be handled by mobile teams but we haven't set a date as to when they will be able to register people in urban areas," the spokesman maintained.
With a planning figure of 600,000 Afghans returning to their homeland this year compared to the 1.5 million last year, the agency started repatriation from the NWFP on 2 March. The governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR are expected to sign a tripartite agreement on repatriation later on this month. "This year we are better prepared and the whole thing will be slower but more methodical," Redden explained.
According to Redden, a UNHCR survey over the winter indicated that most Afghans remained reluctant to return or they hadn't planned for going back to their country. "There were a fairly small number that said that they were planning on going back this year," he said, adding that a larger number had indicated that they would go if certain conditions such as security and shelter were provided in Afghanistan.
The survey targeted most of the refugees living in the camps of the NWFP and the southwestern Baluchistan province as well as in the cities of Islamabad and the southern port city of Karachi.
Lisbeth Pilegaard, resident representative of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) told IRIN from Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar that UNHCR's concentration on refugees in the camps was reasonable. "The rural refugees or those living in camps were more vulnerable and had little access to information compared to the Afghans living in the cities."
Pilegaard added that compared to last year, they were better organised to assist in the repatriation efforts. NRC has assisted thousands of Afghan refugee families in returning to their homeland by providing accurate information on the process and has also helped in resolving their legal disputes in Pakistan before heading home.
Earlier, the US-based NGO, Refugees International (RI) reported that most of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan were unwilling to return home, citing the lack of security, shelter and employment inside the country. The report noted that many of the 1.8 million people returning to their country last year found themselves in more misery because promised reconstruction assistance had not been delivered.
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