A $1.9 billion plan to help rebuild the lives of almost 9 million former and current Afghan refugees gained international backing Thursday, as officials prepare for the impending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Switzerland and the United Nations appeared at a conference in Geneva to tout the plan, which will initially focus on providing schools and jobs and meeting other basic needs for the 5.7 million Afghans who have returned to their homeland.
The meeting was not a donor conference, however, and officials acknowledged that raising the funds will take some effort.
"We have identified 48 sites in Afghanistan as the priority sites where we can help with the returned refugees, providing them with basic needs, health, employment," said Jamaher Anwary, Afghanistan's minister of refugees and repatriation. "It depends on the support of the international community."
The two-day conference, co-hosted by the U.N. refugee agency and Switzerland this week, was held as the United States winds down its presence in Afghanistan, and Afghans worry about what happens when American and other NATO troops turn security over to the Afghan army and police.
Tens of thousands of Afghans each year have been crossing their nation's border in both directions _ returning home, or fleeing to seek asylum abroad. Many Afghans have turned to a thriving human smuggling industry to get themselves or their relatives out of the country.
After the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention that toppled the Taliban, some 5.7 million Afghan refugees returned home to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran _ roughly 25 percent of the country's total population.
The vast majority of those came back in the first five years, but the numbers have since dwindled, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Afghans topped the list of asylum claimants to the world's richest countries in 2011, according to the U.N. refugee agency. More than 35,700 Afghans asked for asylum last year, a one-third increase compared to 2010.
Some 2 million Afghans remain in Pakistan, and 1 million in Iran, and the plan also is intended to help resettle those who wish to return home.
In Pakistan, about half of the Afghan refugees were born outside of Afghanistan and have no property to return to there. But in Iran, economic challenges have led many Afghans to try to return home.
Shaukat Ullah, Pakistan's minister for states and frontier regions, said his nation aims to voluntarily resettle all Afghans in Pakistan to their homeland by the end of this year. He declined to elaborate on what might happen once the deadline passes.
"We should consider this conference as a starting point of an international consensus for an orderly and safe, voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees," he said.