29 December 2008The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partners have started to deliver supplies to help an estimated 200,000 Afghan returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) get through the country’s harsh winter. Over 147,000 blankets, more than 80,000 plastic sheets, 32,000 jerry cans, 46,000 items of warm clothing including 18,000 pairs of shoes and 30,000 pairs of socks have been purchased and sent to UNHCR’s regional offices for country-wide distribution.Some 276,700 Afghans returned to their homeland this year through UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation programme, 99 per cent of them coming from neighbouring Pakistan and the remaining 1 per cent from Iran and other countries.So far UNHCR has distributed aid to more than 5,000 families in the eastern region, where most of this year’s returnees, some 61 per cent, are living. The agency hopes to reach a total of 11,000 families there in the coming weeks.Overall, UNHCR plans to assist a total of 31,897 Afghan families – some 200,000 individuals – across the country. It hopes to complete all of the distributions by the end of January.The agency noted that many more families are receiving winter aid this year as a result of its awareness-raising and advocacy efforts. Over 5 million people have returned to Afghanistan since 2002, representing a 20 per cent increase in the country’s overall population. Some 4.3 million of them were assisted through UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation programme for Afghan refugees, the world’s largest for the past six years.The programme is currently suspended for the winter and will resume next March. The agency estimates there are still 2.8 million registered Afghans living in Pakistan and Iran.Meanwhile, the UN Security Council has noted important elements of progress in the country, which it says give rise to a sense of “cautious optimism” for the future. These include the “marked” improvement in the relations with Pakistan, according to a report released today on the Council’s 21 to 28 November mission to Afghanistan.The 15-member body also cited recent Cabinet appointments, which are expected to bring about increased energy and efficiency on the part of the Government, for example, in the fight against corruption. Progress also included the “significant” reduction in opium cultivation – some 19 per cent – as well as the commitment to improve governance, and the registration of nearly 2 million Afghans in the first two phases of the voter registration project ahead of presidential and provincial council elections slated for 2009. “Those gains must be built upon, especially in the coming year,” the Council stated.