The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) plans to help 220,000 refugees return to Afghanistan this year, but the country is ill-prepared to cope with the influx, experts warn.
Economic and security issues remain dire, but the pressure is growing on displaced Afghans currently living in Pakistan and Iran to leave, with both countries citing "security concerns" over their presence.
According to IRIN, a news service funded by the United Nations, conservative estimates put the number of Afghans living in Iran and Pakistan at 2.7 million.
Pakistan is home to at least 1.7 million Afghans who must have their residence permits renewed in December 2009 if they wish to remain. Many Afghan families have been living in the volatile North West Frontier Province since the 1980s and the Pakistani government increasingly sees them as a source of instability and extremism.
The UNHCR and other aid agencies say Afghanistan is buckling under the humanitarian strain. The country has received some five million returning refugees since 2002.
Ingrid MacDonald, protection and advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN March 15, "The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly since 2006, particularly on the security front. Afghanistan is also one of the poorest countries in the world and people have very little access to basic services such as health, education and livelihoods." Shamsuddin Hamid, a spokesman for the Ministry of Refugees and Returnees' Affairs, added, "We do not have the capacity to absorb large numbers of returnees."