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A People on the Move

With the return of security and political stability in Afghanistan, thousands of refugees are coming back despite landmines and massive destruction. But many Afghan civilians are also trying to get out.

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Busy scene at the Chaman border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as refugees come home

Peace and normalcy are returning to Afghanistan after two decades of civil war, poverty and drought. The repressive Taliban regime has been almost wiped out. In place is an interim government, whose priority is to rebuild and stabilise the country.

But in spite of the improving conditions, surprisingly, thousands of Afghans are fleeing the country and are now trying to get into Pakistan, a United Nations spokeswoman said on Wednesday. This despite a recent trend for refugees to return home.

No more space in border camps

Nearly 5,000 Afghans arrived at the border town of Chaman on Tuesday, and thousands more are reported to be preparing to flee the southern city of Kandahar, Fatoumata Kaba of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) told a media briefing.

"This is the first time in several weeks that we are seeing such a large number of arrivals from Afghanistan," she said.

The Afghans are now stranded in no man's land between Afghanistan and Pakistan, hoping to be allowed into Pakistan's Killi Faizo refugee camp, which already has about 3,000 uprooted people.

"We are likely to be confronted with space problems if such an influx continues into the Chaman area where camps are nearing full capacity," Kaba said.

The UNHCR is at a loss to understand why so many people want to leave Kandahar, when other border crossings have seen displaced people returning home after the collapse of the Taliban in December.

Most of the Afghans are reported to be fleeing what they describe as economic hardship caused by drought and lack of aid.

The UNHCR plans talks with the Pakistan government to discuss accommodation for the new wave of refugees and prepare to open new camps.

Operation Shomali

On Monday, the UNHCR undertook its first project of assisted return of internally displaced people, with 105 families returning from the Panjshir Valley to the homes they fled three years ago in the Shomali Plain east of Kabul.

"This is the start of what we hope will be a daily assisted return to the Shomali Plain," UNHCR spokeswoman Maki Shinohara said. The U.N. estimates some 200,000 villagers fled the region between 1998 and 2000 during fighting between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces.

The refugee agency now plans to move 3,000 of those families back to their homes over the next few weeks.

But progress is slow as many of their homes are in ruins and some 60 percent of villages on the Shomali plain are still littered with landmines.

Mines pose the biggest danger to those wishing to return, with local hospitals in the Shomali area alone receiving about five people a day injured by explosions.

Refugees returning thick and fast

The UNHCR says that nearly 60,000 people have returned to Afghanistan since the beginning of November, 2001. Almost all of them have come from Pakistan and Iran, where the vast majority of Afghan refugees have been living.

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.

War and bombing have completely devastated Afghanistan. There’s hardly any infrastructure to speak of and no running water and electricity in most villages.

The UNHCR now fears that many Afghans will now try and head for the capital of Kabul, which is by comparison more prosperous and considered safer due to the presence of the international peacekeeping force.

An estimated 1.3 million people have been displaced within Afghanistan by 22 years of war, while another 3.5 million are estimated to have sought refuge in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan.