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Tuesday, 2 April, 2002, 19:36 GMT 20:36 UK
Afghan refugees rush home
Afghan refugees cross the Pakistan border
After years of waiting, a torrential homecoming
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By Imogen Foulkes
BBC correspondent in Berne
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says up to 50,000 Afghan refugees are returning to their country from Pakistan every week.

We weren't expecting so many, frankly

UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville
In a statement issued at its headquarters in Geneva, the UNHCR said around 150,000 refugees had been repatriated since the beginning of March alone.

The "phenomenal" scale and speed of the voluntary repatriation scheme has surprised the UNHCR which says more funds may be needed to continue the flow.

On Monday alone more than 14,000 people crossed the border into Afghanistan through the registration centre near Peshawar in north-western Pakistan.

Pleasant surprise

UNHCR spokesman, Rupert Colville, says the scale of the return has taken the agency by surprise.

Afghan refugee child in a desolate camp on the Iranian border
Refugees may start returning from Iran too

"Our target figures for the whole year from Pakistan was about 400,000; so we're already somewhere between a third and a half of that and it's only the beginning of April.

"The only parallel to this was in 1992 when 1.2m Afghans went back in eight months. This was after the fall of the communist government and it was colossal numbers.

"It's beginning to look a bit like that this year. We weren't expecting so many, frankly," he said.

Each returning refugee receives $20 to help pay for the journey as well as a returnees' relief kit containing blankets, a tarpaulin, fuel and 150 kg of wheat.

All this of course costs money. The UNHCR requested $271m to fund the repatriation programme and has so far received $128m.

But that money is almost gone.

Only $2m remains and Rupert Colville says the UNHCR is now scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Hard cash

"We're obviously contacting all the donors saying please can you speed up the rate of getting us some money because otherwise things might slow down and we might even have to stop", he says.

Refugee family crosses the Khyber Pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan
Millions of Afghans look forward to going home

The return of the refugees looks set to increase even further following the signing on Wednesday of a tripartite agreement between the UNHCR, Iran and Afghanistan.

The agreement sets out a framework for the voluntary repatriation of refugees from Iran.

There are an estimated 1.5 m Afghans currently in Iran and the UNHCR believes they may be just as eager as the refugees in Pakistan to return home quickly.

See also:

28 Mar 02 | South Asia
UN to set up Afghan mission
19 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghan refugees flood home
10 Mar 02 | South Asia
New UN scheme for Afghan refugees
05 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghanistan refugees to go home
20 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's huge rebuilding task
15 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Afghanistan
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