By Josh Smith
KABUL (Reuters) - The slow trickle of Afghan refugees returning home is at historic lows, dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands being displaced by ongoing fighting and economic problems, according to United Nations officials.
So far this year about 2,200 refugees have returned to Afghanistan, on track to match 2014, which saw the lowest number of returnees since the start of a voluntary repatriation process in 2001.
"It is much lower than we would have expected," said U.N. Assistant High Comissioner for Operations George Okoth-Obbo, who visited Kabul on Sunday as part of a regional trip.
About 2.4 million Afghan refugees remain in foreign countries.
More than 200,000 Afghans fled to Europe in 2015, according to UNHCR figures, and untold others sought sanctuary in Pakistan, Iran, and within Afghanistan itself, Okoth-Obbo said.
"The Afghan refugee crisis is not impacting only Europe," he said, noting that already in 2016, 80,000 Afghans have been forced from their homes, joining more than a million others currently internally displaced within the country.
U.N. officials urged the international community to work with the Afghan government to try to support and reintegrate refugees and other displaced people so they can benefit from government programs and not rely on foreign aid.
"As the international spotlight focuses on Afghans on the move to Europe, it is important to remember that the largest and most vulnerable displaced populations in need are right here in their home country and in the regional neighborhood," the U.N.'s top refugee official in Afghanistan, Maya Ameratunga, said in a statement.
Last year, some 60,000 Afghans voluntarily returned home, Okoth-Obbo said. That was unusually high as Afghan refugees in Pakistan faced increased "harassment, extortion, and other push factors" by officials in the wake of terrorist attacks, according to the U.N.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Andrew Bolton)