ISLAMABAD, 11 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - Lack of infrastructure and livelihood opportunities in the southern belt of Afghanistan, the region of origin of a large majority of Afghans living in Pakistan, has been impeding returns, according to an annual survey of voluntary repatriation by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Pakistan.
"It's a big, ongoing problem. There is not enough development and insecurity makes it hard to bring development. UNHCR is not a development agency as such, but it has provided assistance for building about 100,000 houses inside Afghanistan," Jack Redden, a UNHCR spokesman, told IRIN in the capital, Islamabad.
In the largest single repatriation operation in the 53-year history of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR has assisted nearly 2.3 million Afghan refugees to repatriate from Pakistan. It expects some 400,000 Afghans to return home during the current year.
UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme started in 2002, but was suspended several times in 2004: during February when the number of returnees was minimal due to harsh winter weather; in June, when security concerns disrupted field operations in Balochistan province; and then in October when repatriation was suspended for 10 days, to avoid complicating the registration of voters and for out of country voting by Afghans inside Pakistan.
An ongoing counter insurgency campaign by the Pakistani army against militants in the northwestern tribal belt prevented UNHCR staff from operating in the South Waziristan area throughout the year, the UNHCR annual repatriation update said.
In addition, the UNHCR has assisted some 800,000 Afghans to return to their homeland from Iran in the same period, while more than 320,000 Afghan refugees have repatriated from Iran on their own.
"At the moment, there are three pressing questions for Afghans to decide their repatriation: shelter, property issues and the non-availability of adequate earning opportunities," Muhammad Akbar Omarzadah, chief representative of the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, told IRIN in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
In support of the voluntary return of Afghans, UNHCR introduced a "Facilitated Group Return" (FGR) programme in 2003. Under the programme, refugee groups are identified from amongst the refugee community in Pakistan that hails from one particular place inside Afghanistan.
"Such groups do want to return, provided some of the basic problems could be solved," said Redden, noting, "Obviously we are not in a position to solve the land and property disputes, which is the major hurdle in a large number of such cases. That is something that the government has to solve."
He added, however, that "the UN refuge agency does try to assist - itself or through other partners - in things like providing tube wells for water supply or some assistance in construction or other facilities."
Though the programme was started in 2003, it gained momentum last year. "More than 20,000 people went back last year in groups to particular locations, and we hope we can help a substantial number of groups for repatriation during the current year," he added.
The UNHCR's voluntary repatriation assistance programme operates under a tripartite agreement between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the UN refugee agency.
The UNHCR estimates there are some one million Afghans in refugee camps in Pakistan, while a large but unknown number of Afghans also live in urban areas of some Pakistani cities. In order to have an updated profile of the Afghan population in Pakistan since December 1979, the UNHCR and the government of Pakistan have planned a census and registration to take place this year.
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