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Sunday, 10 March, 2002, 13:21 GMT
New UN scheme for Afghan refugees
An Afghan woman with her children in a refugee camp
Thousands of refugees live in squalid conditions
By the BBC's Pam O'Toole

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR has launched a new scheme which could help more than a million Afghan refugees to return home over the next year.

Recent events in Afghanistan have swollen the already huge number of refugees and internally displaced.

Since 11 September, it is estimated that about 250,000 Afghans have fled to Pakistan, while tens of thousands more may have been smuggled into Iran.

An Afghan near a refugee settlement in Pakistan
Many have already returned home
The new arrivals joined 3.5m of their countrymen already sheltering in these two countries.

But since the fall of the Taleban, that pattern has started to change.

Thousands of Afghans are still arriving at the Pakistani border, mostly fleeing food shortages in their home regions.

But large numbers are also heading in the opposite direction.

About 250,000 have returned home since November.

And a further million could go back under the new scheme run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The scheme offers cash and assistance to returnees.

Criticism

But the UN is stressing it is only aimed at those who have already decided to go back independently.

It says it is actively advising against return to certain provinces for security reasons.

An Afghan boy bites a loaf of bread
Supplies are often meagre in refugee camps

But some human rights groups have been critical.

They fear that refugees - under pressure from their host countries to repatriate - might see the scheme as their only opportunity to get financial assistance to return home.

They also question whether returnees will receive enough objective information about the economic and human rights situation in their home areas before setting off.

Undoubtedly many Afghan refugees want to go home.

But many are likely to wait for assurances that they will have somewhere to live and the chance of some kind of a livelihood in one of the most poverty stricken countries in the world.

See also:

05 Mar 02 | South Asia
Relief gears up after Afghan quake
01 Mar 02 | South Asia
UN opens Afghan refugee centre
26 Feb 02 | South Asia
Afghanistan 'unsafe for refugees'
21 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
Hi-tech tents tackle Afghan cold
19 Feb 02 | South Asia
Fresh Afghan influx into Pakistan
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