Geneva, Switzerland (BBN)- Over a quarter of a million Afghans have returned home so far this year, according to the United Nations refugee agency, which noted that many of them left neighboring Pakistan and Iran due to security and economic worries.

Since January this year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has assisted 248,951 registered Afghans to repatriate from Pakistan and 2,929 from Iran.

“Many said they returned to Afghanistan because they could not afford the high cost of living in exile amid the current food and fuel crisis. Others cited security uncertainties as a reason for leaving Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province,” the UNHCR said in a press statement.

Most of this year’s returnees – some 63 per cent – have gone to eastern Afghanistan, while another 13 per cent have returned to the capital, Kabul.

More than five million Afghans have returned home since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, including over 4.3 million that have repatriated with UNHCR assistance, mostly from Pakistan and Iran.

The returnees face many difficulties, including lack of job opportunities, shelter and basic services such as health care and education.

To help the returnees get started with their new lives, UNHCR provides a cash grant averaging $100 per person upon their return to Afghanistan, as well as shelter assistance to the most vulnerable, according to the statement.

The agency also coordinates efforts to establish water and sanitation facilities and other basic infrastructure in areas of high return.

The UNHCR-assisted voluntary repatriation operation from Pakistan will be temporarily suspended at the end of this month for the winter and will resume in March 2009.

BBN/SI/SS/AD-08October08-1:41 AM (BST)