ISLAMABAD, 12 Jul 2006 (IRIN) - The voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan this year has surpassed the 100,000 mark. Although the number is less than the same period last year, it includes many skilled workers taking their expertise back home, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Tuesday.
Among the returnees so far this year are more than 1,200 carpet weavers, 350 teachers, 325 engineers and 115 from the medical profession.
"Seeing skilled Afghans return home in large numbers helps to keep the hope of nation-building alive for Afghanistan," said John Andrew, UNHCR's head of mission in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
Others in the skilled category include legal practitioners, plumbers, masons, agricultural and office workers.
Initiated in early 2002, UNHCR's voluntary return operation has helped more than 2.84 million Afghans return home after the fall of the Taliban government in Kabul in late 2001.
UNHCR explained the decrease in returns by saying most of those Afghans who have wanted to go home have already made the move. "The drop could be because Afghans who wanted to return have already done so, five years into UNHCR's voluntary return operation," UNHCR spokesman in Geneva Andrew Spindler said.
In all, more than 2.8 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan and more than 1.4 million from Iran since UNHCR started facilitating returns to Afghanistan in 2002. An estimated 2.6 million Afghans remain in Pakistan while more than 900,000 are believed to be still living in Iran.
"We know that the [Afghan] people remaining in Pakistan are those who face many more challenges in returning and reintegration than those who have gone before. Right now we are discussing with the Pakistani government what is the best way to manage the temporary stay of Afghans in Pakistan," said Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR's assistant representative in Pakistan.
The Afghan return programme is the largest voluntary repatriation operation ever undertaken by UNHCR in its 56 years of history.
Voluntary repatriation continues under tripartite agreements between Afghanistan, UNHCR, and the governments of Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran separately. An Iranian delegation is currently in Kabul for the 10th tripartite commission meeting to discuss the return of Afghans in Iran.
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