PESHAWAR -  At least 128 families of registered Afghan refugees left for Afghanistan on Monday as voluntary repatriation of the refugees resumed after a gap of four months.

The voluntary repatriation process, which had been halted in November 2016 due to cold weather in Afghanistan, formally resumed from repatriation centre at Chamkani in Peshawar.

“On the very first day, a total of 128 registered Afghan families returned to Afghanistan. Of them, 122 families left from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa through Torkham border and six more families from Balochistan through Chamman border,” Duniya Aslam Khan, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) told The Nation.

The returned 128 families make a total of 571 individuals, she said and added the repatriation process had been temporarily stopped in November 2016 due to harsh weather in Afghanistan and now after about four-month, it has been resumed.

The UNHCR officials said that earlier the UNHCR paid $400 to each person of a repatriating Afghan refugee family, but the financial assistance had now been reduced to $200 per person. They said the decision to cut cash grant had been taken following reduction in financial aids from donor agencies.

Duniya said currently the repatriation process had been started from Chamkani centre on main GT Road at the outskirts of Peshawar. The Chamkani repatriation centre has the capacity of arranging return of about 500 families per day, she said, adding the centre could manage the repatriation process properly.

She, however, said if the number of Afghan refugees returning to Afghanistan increased, then a second repatriation centre in Nowshera would be opened for registering them and facilitating them accordingly.

Pakistan has allowed stay of registered Afghan refugees till December 31, 2017.

Agencies add: The government resumed the repatriation of Afghan refugees on Monday, sending nearly 1,200 people back across the heavily guarded northern Torkham border, an official at the United Nations’ refugee body said.

Pakistan is home to the world's second largest refugee population, with a total of 2.5 million Afghans living there. Many have been in Pakistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

Human Rights Watch has accused the UN of allowing Pakistan to forcibly evict Afghan refugees in violation of international law.

Rights activists say they expect little change this year in either Pakistani policies or the inability of the Afghan government and aid groups to support the tide. Pakistan denies systematic harassment of the refugees by its authorities. It claims the country has demonstrated great generosity in hosting the Afghans despite its own economic limitations. The Afghans going home now are leaving voluntarily, it says.

However, the Afghans complain about constant harassment and a lack of citizenship rights for those who have spent decades living and working in Pakistan.

"My family moved to Pakistan in the early '80s," said Abdul Wahab, who lived in Islamabad for more than 30 years. "My father sold carpets and operated a successful shop. He made sure he always paid his taxes. But we could not have a bank account or own property."

Despite growing up in Pakistan, Wahab said, the weight of being a second-class citizen was too much to bear. In early 2016, before Pakistan began sending back Afghan refugees, Wahab packed up his carpets and moved the business back to Kabul.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed that voluntary returns resumed after a suspension due to winter weather.

Asked whether Pakistan's hard-handed approach toward Afghans living within its borders for nearly 40 years had spurred the exodus, UNHCR representative Samad Khan said the reasons were varied. "Some move for economic purposes or to unite with their families and others are moving due to border restrictions which have impacted their families," he said.

According to Khan, 370,000 refugees volunteered to return in 2016 after Pakistan announced new repatriation plans. Human Rights Watch estimates another 200,000 undocumented refugees were shipped back to Afghanistan, where conflict and economic crisis have left the government struggling to maintain basic living standards

"We have sent back 194 families today and they are all voluntary returnees who registered for return," Khan said. A UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva said officials do not know how many refugees may return to Afghanistan this year, but that so far around 24,000 Afghans in Pakistan have "expressed an interest" in returning in April and May.

"UNHCR advocates for all refugee returns from Pakistan to be voluntary, gradual and take place in conditions of safety and dignity," Duniya Khan told AFP on Monday.