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Saturday, 29 December, 2001, 13:20 GMT
Afghan refugees head home
A family returning home
The UN hopes the steady stream will become a flood
More than 5,000 Afghan refugees have been returning home every day in the last week, the fastest rate since the fall of the Taleban.

But with more than four million Afghans living outside the country's borders, refugee agencies say that even if the return accelerates quickly, it will be years before the problem is resolved.

We have to find out how permanent these initial returns will be

Katharina Lumpp, UNHCR

The UN's refugee agency said that nearly 60,000 people had returned since the beginning of November, almost all from Pakistan and Iran, where the vast majority of refugees have been living.

Most of the returnees are single men going home to judge for themselves the country's political and economic outlook before bringing their families.

Katharina Lumpp, UNHCR protection officer for Afghanistan, said it was too early to judge if these people were coming home for good.

"We have to find out how permanent these initial returns will be. From our survey in Iran it is clear people are going to survey sites and see if a return is economically viable," she told BBC News Online.

Too few jobs

Refugee camp
Millions remain in camps

Although there is optimism about Afghanistan's newly installed interim government and the chances of peace, the country's economy has been ravaged by years of war and drought. In the cities, jobs are hard to find.

With Afghanistan's harsh winter closing in, relief agencies will not be able to tell for several months if a mass return is likely.

The UNHCR says May and June are traditionally the busiest months for people to return, when snow and winter rainfall have left the ground humid and ready for sowing.

"It will be the winter precipitation, or whether the drought is over, which will determine if people return in the spring," Ms Lumpp said.

She said that the improved security situation was promising, although there were indications among refugees from the majority Pashtun tribes that they were waiting to see how the minority-dominated interim government acted.

"Now I think people are getting more optimistic but they are still very cautious," she said.

As part of a five-year plan, the UNHCR hopes 1 million Afghans will return home in 2002, with half the total coming from Iran and half from Pakistan.

See also:

21 Dec 01 | South Asia
Hopeful Afghan refugees return
04 Dec 01 | South Asia
No shelter for freezing Afghan refugees
03 Dec 01 | TV and Radio reports
Afghanistan's missing millions
03 Dec 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Afghan refugee misery
09 Nov 01 | South Asia
Race to beat polio in Afghan camps
05 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghans' camps without hope
21 Dec 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan hopes for global aid
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