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UNHCR marks 30 years of helping Afghan refugees

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will enter its fourth decade of engagement with the refugee crisis in Afghanistan this month.

The Soviet occupation of the country, which began in 1979, caused one of the largest movements of refugees in history with as many as six million Afghans seeking refuge in Pakistan and Iran at one point.

UNHCR has been involved with the refugee movements throughout this period.

"Our organization is a non-political, humanitarian agency," said Ewen MacLeod, UNHCR's Representative in Afghanistan. "We have worked in Afghanistan under every Government in Afghanistan - during the Soviet period, during the mujahideen period, during the Taliban period, and since 2002 during the present administration."

According to the UN refugee agency, over five million Afghans have returned home since 2002, which represents an increase of around 20 per cent in the estimated population.

"This year some 54,000 Afghan refugees returned from Pakistan and Iran. This is still a very large number. But it is the lowest return figure to Afghanistan for more than 10 years," added Mr MacLeod.

The fall in number of returnees to Afghanistan can be attributed to the growing insecurity in the south of the country, difficulty for humanitarian agencies in gaining access to many provinces, and the concern among refugees about the political and economic prospects in the country.

However, to assist families returning to Afghanistan, UNHCR has built more than 200,000 houses since 2002.

"Next year we anticipate building a further housing 10,000 units," Mr MacLeod announced.

UNHCR cautions that not all Afghans who cross international borders into Pakistan and Iran are refugees. The Agency says that a vast majority of them leave the country to look for work or to maintain a family.

Mr MacLeod also warned that there are many young Afghans are "undertaking very dangerous and risky journeys" to reach a foreign country, under the false belief that they will be automatically accepted as a refugee.

"But this is not the case. We believe that it is very important that the Afghan population also understands that there is a difference between someone who crosses the border as a refugee to escape violence and somebody who crosses the border to do business or trade to visit relatives or look for work," he clarified.

By Aditya Mehta, UNAMA

Website: UNHCR Afghanistan