KABUL, (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Sunday it would work for the return of about 1.2 million Afghan refugees this year, far fewer than the massive influx last year which strained the war-torn country's scarce resources.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers told a news conference it was important to build houses, schools and ensure sources of drinking water before all Afghans could be brought home.
Nearly two million returned to Afghanistan last year after the fall of the Taliban, but tens of thousands found no work or shelter and experts say the country's newfound peace could be threatened by increasing numbers of landless and unemployed.
"We are shifting the emphasis from maximal repatriation to a more sustainable return," Lubbers, on a 10-day tour of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, said. "We are in the process that Afghanistan accommodates itself to the Afghans coming back."
The Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit said in a report this month that last year's mass repatriation was driven more by neighbouring countries wanting to be rid of refugees and donors trying to legitimise the country's new government.
Pakistan and Iran are still home to an estimated four million Afghan refugees, forced from their homes by 23 years of war and a crushing drought that began in 1998.
Lubbers said the refugees would be encouraged to return to their home towns and villages, rather than big cities such as Kabul, which are unable to cope with the inflow.
"We hope to shift a little bit to the countryside," he said. "It's clear that somewhat too many of those who are coming back prefer to go to the city.
Lubbers said rival warlords in the volatile northern provinces had given him personal guarantees of the safe return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Pashtuns who fled to the south.
There are more than 700,000 Afghans displaced across the country, in addition to the millions still abroad. Many are Pashtuns, who have faced harassment and persecution since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.
Lubbers held talks with Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Tajik military commander Ustad Atta Mohammad and Hazara leader Saradar Saeedi during a trip to the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif.
"The leaders of the north unanimously agreed to improve security, prevent forcible recruitment and take strong actions against local commanders who prevent people from returning to the northern provinces," the UNHCR said in a statement.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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