The UN refugee agency says that nearly 83,000 Afghan refugees have returned home this year through its assisted voluntary repatriation programme, a 24% overall increase compared to 2011.


During November this year, over 8,200 refugees returned from Pakistan alone, compared with only around 3,000 in November last year. However, Pakistan is still hosting some 1.65 million Afghan refugees and another one million undocumented Afghans, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Wednesday.


Voluntary repatriation remains UNHCR’s preferred solution globally for most refugees. Since 2002, around 5.7 million Afghan refugees have returned to their home country, constituting nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Nevertheless, Pakistan and Iran are still generously hosting some 2.7 million Afghan refugees after three decades, a UNHCR statement said.


Pakistani Government is holding informal consultations to formulate the policy beyond 31 December 2012, a date set for the Afghan refugees to return homes.


Pakistan had issued Proof of Registration Cards (PoRs) to Afghan refugees that will expire on December 31 and the government has not yet decided to extend its period. Pakistan says that it will treat all Afghan refugees as illegal immigrants after the expiry of PoRs.


Pakistani Minister for States and Frontier Regions, Engineer Shaukatullah Khan, whose ministry also deals with the refugees affairs, concluded a three-day visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday who assured the Afghan leaders that Pakistan will not forcibly expel Afghans.


The Minister also called on President Hamid Karzai and ‘expressed his commitment to the voluntary return of Afghan refugees to their homeland, whilst also hoping that the Pakistan Government will soon agree to a mechanism in this respect for voluntary and dignified return. During this meeting, emphasis was made on the voluntary nature of return by the President’ the UNHCR said.


Shaukat Ullah also saw first-hand the implementation of the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Returnees (SSAR) in Afghanistan, and the conditions in which refugee returns are taking place.  Together with Dr. Jamaher Anwary, Minister for Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR), the Minister visited two high-return areas where they met returnees from Pakistan. They were also accompanied by representatives of UNHCR in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Mr. Neill Wright, UNHCR Representative in Pakistan.


The delegations visited Kochi Abad, near Kabul, where they met with recently returned refugees from Pakistan and witnessed the many needs still faced by the returnees as winter approaches, despite several already completed projects, including a new school that was under construction at the time.


The second high-return area visited was in Shashpool in Bamyan Province, where the Ministers formally opened a number of reintegration support projects, including shelters, water/sanitation, solar lights and access roads. Minister Shaukat Ullah, while acknowledging the difficulties faced by the community, expressed the Government of Pakistan’s support for facilitating in any way possible the reintegration of returning refugees to Shashpool and other high return areas.  “Shashpool is a model for other reintegration areas of high return,” said Minister Shaukaut Ullah.


Voluntary repatriation and sustainable reintegration is at the centre of the SSAR that was endorsed at an international conference in Geneva in May 2012. “However, we need development funding and development actors to urgently become more engaged in supporting sustainable reintegration for refugees, through the implementation of this strategy, “said Dr. Anwary.


“It is more important than ever that the Government authorities, the humanitarian and development actors, and the returnees themselves come together. It is a complex and long-term challenge that needs to be tackled through strong partnerships under the leadership of the Government of Afghanistan and the relevant ministries who have the primary responsibility in ensuring the safe and sustainable reintegration of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and from other countries”, said Mr. Neill Wright, the UNHCR Representative in Pakistan, who accompanied the Pakistani  Minister.