ISLAMABAD, 8 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - The return home of 122 Afghan refugees on Monday from Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) marked the resumption of the Afghan voluntary repatriation programme of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner or Refugees (UNHCR) for 2005.
"The voluntary repatriation of Afghans has been resumed after a temporary suspension in the programme from December last year due to falling numbers of refugees seeking assistance to repatriate and also because of the harsh winter weather," Jack Redden, a UNHCR spokesman told IRIN on Tuesday in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
The UN refugee agency has been running the voluntary repatriation assistance programme for Afghans since 2002, under the tripartite agreement, which runs till March 2006, between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and UNHCR.
About 27 Afghan families left the provincial capital of NWFP, Peshawar, for the Afghan border province of Nangarhar. In three years, UNHCR has assisted some 2.3 million Afghans to repatriate from Pakistan and about 779,000 from Iran, the largest voluntary repatriation programme in the 53-year history of the UN refugee agency.
Meanwhile, UNHCR's voluntary repatriation information centres in four cities across the country: Peshawar; Islamabad: Karachi and Quetta, have reopened to assist Afghans in their plans to return home.
The UN refugee agency is also assisting the government of Pakistan in carrying out the first ever census of Afghans living in Pakistan. The census concluded on 6 March in all parts of the country except Balochistan province, where the operation has been extended till 10 March due to delays caused by bad weather.
UNHCR officials are hopeful that the repatriation operation will gather momentum towards the end of the month, as harsh winter conditions that have affected Afghanistan and Pakistan's northwestern areas ease.
Each returning Afghan on the scheme gets up to US $30 in travel grant. An additional $12 per person is paid to help with integration. All payments are made to returnees at UNHCR encashment centres inside Afghanistan.
Last year more than 384,000 Afghans returned from Pakistan to Afghanistan under the voluntary repatriation programme. UNHCR expects about 400,000 Afghans to voluntarily repatriate during 2005.
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