Returns of Afghan refugees exceed expectations UNHCR reports

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More than 800,000 people have returned to Afghanistan since 1 March in what has become the largest and fastest refugee return since Kosovo in 1999, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced today.The vast majority – some 730,000 – have returned from Pakistan, but a further 60,000 have come back from Iran, with smaller, but not insignificant numbers also arriving from Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Although large-scale returns were expected – initially UNHCR predicted some 1.2 million Afghans would return from abroad in 2002 – the scale and speed of the returns has forced the agency to review its budget and planning.Because the security situation is still fragile in parts of the country, and access to food, health care, shelter and water remains limited, UNHCR is not actively promoting refugee returns at present. However, it is providing assistance to those who choose to go home. Meanwhile, the UN Mission in Afghanistan announced today that Phase I of the Loya Jirga selection process was completed in all but about 25 districts, among them the ones where conditions for the selection process could not be met. Where that is the case, the Loya Jirga Commission will appoint the delegates. The first phase of the Loya Jirga process is the election by secret ballot of district representatives from Afghanistan’s 381 districts. In the second phase, those district representatives will meet at regional centres to select delegates to actually attend the Emergency Loya Jirga. The Loya Jirga itself is scheduled to start on 10 June. In another development, Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi, has accepted a request to guest star in a popular BBC Afghanistan radio soap opera called “New Home, New Life.” The episode, which will be broadcast on the first day of the Loya Jirga, will feature Mr. Brahimi talking to the characters about the important role of the Afghan people in the decision-making process.

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