KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The number of Afghan refugees returning home from Pakistan fell by almost 60 percent this year, the United Nations' refugee agency said Saturday, reflecting the reluctance of many to return to the war-ravaged country where security concerns abound a decade after a U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban.
The UNHCR said that 60,000 Afghans have returned so far this year under its voluntary repatriation effort — 43,000 coming home from Pakistan and 17,000 from Iran.
While the number returning from Iran was double the level for the same period last year, 59 percent fewer returned from Pakistan, the agency said. In Pakistan, most of the Afghan refugees live in two trouble-prone northwest regions that border Afghanistan — Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan.
A NATO push over the past couple of years forced the Taliban to shift operations outside its traditional strongholds in the south. Afghanistan's eastern provinces have become particular hotspots in the war-ravaged nation where U.S.-led NATO forces, for the past decade, have been battling the insurgents.
The al-Qaida and Taliban-linked Haqqani network operates out of Pakistan, striking into east Afghanistan and into the capital, Kabul.
The agency said most of the refugees hail from insecure regions of Afghanistan that have seen "limited development," and that many had cited the still-precarious security situation and lack of opportunities to restart their lives as reasons for their reluctance to return home.
Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan, Iran and, to a lesser extent, other neighboring countries, as the nation was gripped by decades of conflict. Pakistan is home to 1.7 million Afghan refugees, and the UNHCR said half of them were born outside of Afghanistan and own no property in the country.
While returnees from Pakistan registered a sharp decline, the number of Afghans returning home from Iran doubled compared to the same period in 2010 — a spike apparently linked to Iran's ongoing economic challenges.
As part of an effort to cut costs by a government under international sanction over its nuclear program, Iran's president ordered that subsidies on food and other basic goods, including fuel, be sharply reduced. Critics had assailed the plan, saying it would lead to a spike in inflation.
So far, about 4.6 million Afghans have returned since 2002, helped by the UNHCR and its government counterparts. In total, about 5.7 million have returned from Pakistan and Iran, or roughly 25 percent of the country's total population, the agency said.