Refugees warned of Afghan return risk

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It is still too dangerous to force refugees to return to their homes in Afghanistan, the Human Rights Watch organisation warned yesterday, even as countries including Britain are preparing to send Afghan asylum-seekers home.

HRW's warning was directed at United Nations plans to begin repatriating the 3.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran. That is due to begin this week, and the UN will open centres with food and shelter, each capable of handling 5,000 people a day.

The Independent reported last month that Britain, for the first time since 1978, is considering sending asylum-seekers back to Afghanistan, saying the country is now safe for them. HRW's 45-page report warned that for many people the country is far from safe. "While many Afghan refugees want to go home, there are others who are terrified of returning at this time," Rachael Reilly, refugee policy director at HRW, said. "Ethnically motivated attacks, lawlessness, and fighting between rival warlords remain rampant in some areas."

HRW said it had interviewed many refugees, "including members of various ethnic groups, and women and girls, who fear continuing human rights abuses in Afghanistan".

Some 50,000 refugees have flooded into Pakistan in the past six weeks. There is particular concern for ethnic Pashtuns, who have been attacked in retaliation for deeds of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.

Researchers said one woman told them: "I am Pashtun and not with the Taliban, but people think I am with them and they will punish me and become angry with me."