KABUL, 3 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - Last year saw a significant number of returns to post-conflict Afghanistan, with more than half a million Afghans repatriated, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Monday in the capital, Kabul.
During 2005, a total of 520,100 Afghans returned home with UNHCR assistance, the majority, 453,000, came from Pakistan, according to the refugee agency.
"This figure represents a significant increase over 2004, when 380,000 Afghans returned from Pakistan and is due in part to the closure of refugee camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA)," said Nader Farhad, spokesman for the UN refugee agency in Afghanistan.
UNHCR-assisted returns from Iran in 2005 now stand at around 67,000, a lower figure than had been predicted. The total number of returns from Iran, which includes those returning without assistance from the UN refugee agency, is nearly 280,000.
Despite large numbers returning, many Afghans remain in neighbouring countries. An official census of Afghans living in Pakistan, conducted in 2005, showed that some 3 million remain in the country - or triple the number remaining in Iran, which is estimated to be around 900,000, according to the UN refugee agency.
UNHCR has also been active in assisting refugees when they reach their destination in Afghanistan. Of 23,730 shelters for returnees planned for 2005, UNHCR said it had completed some 21,424, or nearly 90 percent.
"By the end of 2005, UNHCR had provided shelter assistance to more than 140,000 families since it began its repatriation operation in 2002," Farhad explained.
In 2005, more than 7,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) were assisted to return to their areas of origin by UNHCR. The majority of IDP returns have been to the provinces of Faryab, Badghis, Helmand and Herat, according to the UN agency.
There are still some 150,000 IDPs, mostly living in camps in the southern provinces of Afghanistan. Since 2002, more than 500,000 IDPs have been assisted to return by the UN refugee agency.
The UNHCR operation to assist returns from Pakistan is currently suspended due to the winter and will resume in March 2006.
"The operation from Iran will continue, though the number of people opting to return at this time is generally low," Farhad noted.
Almost three decades of civil war and serious human rights abuses have forced millions of Afghan men, women and children to flee their homes and seek refuge in other parts of Afghanistan or outside the country. Since the armed conflict began after the Soviet invasion in 1979, civilians - women and children in particular - have suffered enormously from the devastating consequences of continuous fighting.
Between the years 1979 and 1992, more than a fifth of Afghanistan's population - over 6 million people - were driven from the country in search of safety, mainly to the neighbouring countries of Iran and Pakistan.
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