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World - Asia/Pacific

Millions of Afghan refugees in exile after Soviet pullout

February 14, 1999
Web posted at: 12:55 a.m. EST (0555 GMT)

ISLAMABAD, Aghanistan (Reuters) -- Ten years after the last Soviet soldier pulled out of Afghanistan, 2.6 million Afghans still live in exile, from the camps of Iran and Pakistan to the suburbs of Frankfurt, Paris and London.

Twenty years after the Soviet invasion provoked an avalanche of refugees, Afghans remain the single largest refugee group in the world, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees said in a statement marking the 10th anniversary of the Soviet pullout.

By the end of 1979 -- the year the Soviet army entered Afghanistan in support of the communist regime which had seized power the previous year -- there were already 400,000 refugees in Pakistan and 200,000 in Iran.

By 15 February 1989, the number had risen to a staggering 6.2 million, split almost equally between the two neighboring countries, "which showed extraordinary generosity in hosting such a vast number of refugees on their territory," the U.N. said.

In both Iran and Pakistan, the refugees were allowed to work, and received considerable government support in the education and health sectors.

Since the Soviet withdrawal, almost two thirds of the refugees have returned to their devastated and poverty-striken country, despite the continuing war between different Afghan groups competing for power.

In all, more than four million Afghans have retuned home voluntarily since 1989, another refugee record and a remarkable testimony to their courage, the UNHCR said.

It said the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan caused the majority of the refugees to flee.

But almost uninterrupted fighting between constantly shifting alliances of Afghan political groups and militias, continued human rights abuses, and a shattered economy and infrastructure have "prevented final settlement of the Afghan legacy," it said.

It said that by the late 1990s, almost 100,000 refugees were returning yearly to safe parts of the country.

The United Nations provides assistance to returnees, such as transport and help with housing and agriculture to revive their traditional way of life.

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.


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