ANKARA, 13 Apr 2004 (IRIN) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, arrived in the Iranian capital Tehran on Tuesday, as part of an eight day mission to the region, including visits Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We are entering a new phase with regard to Afghan repatriation," Rupert Coleville, a spokesman for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told IRIN from Geneva. "Half the Afghans have gone home already, so this is very much an opportunity to look ahead - as well as push forward solutions for people who are still displaced in neighbouring countries."
But while the visit was expected to focus largely on challenges facing the voluntary repatriation effort - where close to 2.5 million Afghan refugees have returned to their homeland since the downfall of the Taliban in December 2001 - the issue of internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside Afghanistan had not been forgotten.
"Approximately half of them have already gone home, but we will be looking at ways to find solutions for them as well," Coleville said, referring to the ongoing IDP issue.
UNHCR plans to assist 400,000 Afghan refugees home this year, and to help all of Afghanistan's 180,000 IDPs to go back to their communities by the end of 2005.
As part of Lubber's three-country mission, the former Dutch prime minister will have two full days of meetings with senior government officials in Tehran, followed by a trip on Thursday to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, where he will meet with local authorities, as well as visiting a displaced persons camp.
Later on Friday, he is scheduled to travel to the Afghan capital, Kabul, for three days, where he is set to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai, along with various Afghan government ministers, before travelling to Pakistan on Sunday, for another series of meetings there.
His visit underscores what has become one of the largest repatriation efforts in the history of UNHCR. According to agency figures, more than three million Afghans - both refugees and IDPs - have returned to their homes over the past three years, most through assistance provided by UNHCR. The vast majority returned from Pakistan and Iran, the two largest host countries to Afghans.
This year alone, more than 50,000 Afghan refugees have so far registered to return from those two countries, under the Afghan government's facilitated repatriation initiative implemented by UNHCR and its partner agencies.
Another 26,000 Afghans have also spontaneously repatriated from Iran this year, for a grand total of more than 76,000 returnees.
Since the facilitated repatriation initiative resumed a month ago in Pakistan, the number of refugees leaving that country stands at over 40,000 people, more than ten times the figure witnessed during March a year ago, when returns were slowed by security concerns over the Iraq war.
As part of the repatriation effort that runs until the beginning of 2006, UNHCR pays transport costs and provides various kinds of repatriation and reintegration assistance, including a small monetary grant, to people returning to their communities.
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