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Wednesday, 3 April, 2002, 23:43 GMT 00:43 UK
New scheme for Afghan repatriation
Afghan refugees
The UN says the refugee return rate is 'phenomenal'
The United Nations refugee agency, Iran and Afghanistan have signed an agreement which the UN says should pave the way for the return of about 400,000 Afghan refugees from Iran over the next year.

Afghan refugee child in a desolate camp on the Iranian border
UN hopes refugees from Iran will be keen to return home
The agreement approves the framework for a programme which will provide Afghans who volunteer to return home with a small cash grant, and other forms of basic assistance.

A similar repatriation programme organised by the UN and Pakistan has produced some 150,000 returns during the month it has been running - a return rate described by the UN as "phenomenal".

Large numbers of 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Iran are also likely to sign up for the new return programme, which is due to start next week, and this year's repatriation to Afghanistan is likely to be one of the biggest since the collapse of the Soviet-backed government 10 years ago.

But with many Afghans unwilling to return because of safety fears, the Afghan Government has asked the international community for $422m to rebuild its security services.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah spent Wednesday in Geneva lobbying Afghanistan's 35 donor countries.

The interim administration wants to build up an army of over 80,000 men and a police force of 70,000.

Keen to go home

Several hundred thousand Afghan refugees - mostly from Pakistan are thought to have returned to their homeland under their own steam in recent months.

Refugee family crosses the Khyber Pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan
Some refugees are more enthusiastic than others
Refugees from the western region of Herat - one of the more stable areas in Afghanistan - are said to be particularly keen to go home.

Other potential returnees include some of the more recent arrivals in Iran who do not have formal permission to remain and fear deportation by the authorities.

But the BBC's Pam O-Toole says that others - including many refugees born and brought up in Iran - may be less enthusiastic about the prospect of returning to a country where they might have little personal security, no job and few amenities.

For many Afghans, security and employment are the issues which will determine whether or not they return to Afghanistan, and whether they stay there.

Security fears

An Afghan minister recently warned that people are returning home faster than jobs for them can be created.

The United Nations refugee agency - concerned at how quickly so many refugees are going back - has warned that Afghanistan remains dangerous, and it has appealed for donor countries for more money to help solve the problem.

In the past many Afghans have taken advantage of voluntary repatriation schemes like this one, only to slip back across the border to Iran or Pakistan later on because there was no work for them at home.

Iran, which has hosted millions of Afghan refugees over the past two decades, will be hoping that conditions have improved to the extent that this time, when the Afghans go home, they will be able to stay there.

See also:

02 Apr 02 | South Asia
Afghan refugees rush home
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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