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Flood of Afghan Returnees Continues

Times Staff Writer

Modern history’s second-largest repatriation -- the return of Afghans to their homeland -- will continue next year at a diminished but still staggering rate, with about 1.2 million refugees expected to make the trek back, the United Nations said Sunday.

As many as 6 million Afghans -- more than 20% of the population -- fled their native country during the 23 years of warfare that ended with the defeat of the Taliban by U.S.-led forces last year.

Almost a third of those who left -- about 1.8 million people -- came flooding back in the past year, 50% more than anyone expected. An additional 250,000 internally displaced Afghans returned to their homes with U.N. assistance. That wave of humanity is second in size only to the 9 million people who returned to Bangladesh in the 1970s after that nation achieved independence from Pakistan, according to the United Nations.

The U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the principal international aid agency for refugees here, spent $271 million on food, transportation, housing and health assistance this year and will spend an estimated $194 million in 2003, spokeswoman Maki Shinohara said Sunday.

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As many as 100,000 refugees a week were streaming in during the peak month of May. Although most of the returnees have gone on to their hometowns or regions, tens of thousands remain in U.N. refugee camps, including 30,000 each in Spin Buldak on the Pakistani border and at another sprawling camp in the west near Herat.

Ethnic violence in some areas of Afghanistan, especially in the north, makes the return of some Pushtun refugees still too risky, the U.N. said.

Because the U.N. was overwhelmed by the number of returnees, much of the aid it budgeted for reconstruction of schools, housing and clinics was used instead for emergency relief, including food and clothing.

As a result, the U.N. has joined the chorus of Afghan government officials and international agencies pleading for new donations of reconstruction aid.

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Afghanistan was slated to receive $1.8 billion in international aid in 2002 and expects $1.2 billion in 2003 if pledges by donor countries at a Tokyo conference earlier this year are made good.

In a recent interview, Afghan Minister of Planning Haji Mohammed Mukhaqiq said he was optimistic that his country will receive as much as $2 billion in foreign aid next year, based on unofficial pledges made at a conference this month in Oslo.


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