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Sunday, 14 April, 2002, 04:09 GMT 05:09 UK
UN refugee chief visits Afghanistan
Afghan refugees
Safety would help to enable a large-scale return
The head of the United Nations' refugee agency is expected in Afghanistan to examine whether refugees can be encouraged to go home.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has launched a voluntary repatriation scheme to help people who want to return.

We do not want them to leave only to return

UN refugee chief Ruud Lubbers
But its chief, Ruud Lubbers, said UN assistance would mean little if there was no peace for families once they got back to Afghanistan.

"Success will depend on the security in Afghanistan," he said.

"The question is not only to repatriate the refugees but also to ease their reintegration, if possible in their villages, in their families and not in camps.

"We do not want them to leave only to return."

Iranian President Mohammed Khatami greets UNHCR Ruud Lubber
Mr Lubbers will travel to Afghanistan from Iran, where he met President Khatami
Two border crossings have been set up by the UN for use by refugees travelling from Iran, but continuing battles around one means that it has not been opened.

But Mr Lubbers, a former Dutch prime minister, said he was not concerned by the setback.

Several hundred thousand Afghans have returned home from Pakistan under the UN scheme in the last six weeks.

But only about 1,300 people have taken up the UNHCR offer of assistance to return to Afghanistan from Iran, partly because of the closed crossing point.

Mr Lubbers said: "It's limiting our activity a bit, but it's not dramatic and I am not concerned."

Afghan refugees (UNHCR figures, Feb 2002)
In Iran: 1.5m
Estimated returns in 2002: 400,000
In Pakistan: 2.2m
Estimated returns in 2002: 400,000

He said he believed most areas Afghanistan were safe enough for refugees who had fled war and the Taleban to return.

Mr Lubbers will travel from Mashhad, in eastern Iran, across the border to the Afghan town of Herat.

He will then continue to Kabul and Jalalabad.

Between them, Iran and Pakistan host about 3.5 million Afghan refugees.

Iranian pressure

Mr Lubbers will also be meeting donors and calling on them to produce the cash they have pledged for long-term reconstruction projects to support the returnees.

He has warned that the Iranian Government's patience would not last for ever.

"It's clear that the authorities in Iran simply want people to go home ," he said.

"If we can not deliver the real repatriation, managed with some material assistance, with UNHCR on the ground at arrival points in the villages, then I fear we will see breakdown of trust with the Iranian authorities."

See also:

13 Apr 02 | South Asia
UN seeks Afghan refugee boost
10 Apr 02 | South Asia
Afghan refugees eager to go home
09 Apr 02 | South Asia
Violence halts Afghan refugee flow
03 Apr 02 | South Asia
New scheme for Afghan repatriation
02 Apr 02 | South Asia
Afghan refugees rush home
28 Mar 02 | South Asia
UN to set up Afghan mission
10 Mar 02 | South Asia
New UN scheme for Afghan refugees
07 Nov 01 | South Asia
Iran's refugee tide ebbs
02 Nov 01 | Middle East
Iran refugee camps 'getting worse'
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