Since 2002, around 5 million Afghan refugees have taken the decision to return, mostly from Pakistan and Iran, swelling the overall population by some 20 per cent.
"This is the huge figure for such a poor country to absorb," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Country Representative Ewen MacLeod at an end-of-year press conference.
There are still an estimated 2.6 million Afghan refugees outside the country, the majority going into exile more than 25 years ago after the Soviet invasion in December 1979, he said.
"This year, in 2009, the figure for return was 54,000," said Mr. McLeod. "This represents quite a significant decrease since 2008."
Mr. McLeod cited a worsening security situation, increasing difficulties for humanitarian agencies to access many parts of the country, concerns over the lack of employment and economic opportunities and the prolonged absence of the remaining refugees as reasons for the drop off in returnees this year.
"We believe the key to maintaining these extremely high levels of return - that have been recorded since 2002 - are essentially economic," said Mr. McLeod, noting that although UNHCR is unable to provide economic solutions, it helps with reintegration.
"One thing that we have been associated with since 2002 is a housing programme," he said. "Next year we anticipate building a further 10,000 housing units - that will bring the overall total that we have supported to 200,000 since 2002."
The Country Representative underscored that providing accommodation alone is inadequate to entice refugees to their homeland. They need schools for their children, health services for their family, and employment.