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U.K. to Afghans: Here's $3,900, go home -- LONDON (UPI) -- The British government has decided it will pay Afghan asylum seekers up to nearly $4,000 to return to their homeland because it's cheaper than supporting them while their claims are being processed.

Under the new Home Office "voluntary assisted returns" package, up to 17,000 refugees are estimated to be eligible for the cash and a free flight to Kabul.

When the six-month trial program begins in about a month, single Afghans will get $930 and families up to $3,900. The catch is that they have to go voluntarily. If they must be deported, they will not qualify for the bonus.

Immigration Minister Beverly Hughes said the package "will help people re-establish themselves back in Afghanistan, help ensure their return is sustainable and enable them to play a part in rebuilding their country."

Also, she said, "helping people to return voluntarily is significantly cheaper than supporting them while their asylum claim is considered."

The Home Office said it had devised a way to prevent refugees from taking the money and vanishing back into the general population in Britain: the funds will be given only after they have left the country.

Officials said biometric data -- unspecified but probably including fingerprinting and iris readings -- would be taken from each refugee to eliminate fraud, particularly attempts to return to Britain.

The British government has demonstrated it is willing to pay to repatriate asylum seekers. A week ago, it spent $46,500 chartering a jet to send a family of Afghans to Kabul after they lost their claims for asylum.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has ruled that, with the overthrow of the Taliban regime at the hands of allied forces, it is safe for refugees to return to Afghanistan for the first time in seven years.

But Margaret Lally, spokeswoman for the Refugee Council, cast some doubts on that claim, saying Afghanistan remains "very unstable and insecure."

In addition, she said, "our experience shows that programs limited to such short periods (as six months) can place undue pressure on refugees to go home before they are ready."

"The absolute bottom line," Lally insisted, "is that returns must be voluntary."

Meanwhile, she called for a long-term returns program that would "build in momentum. People will be able to go home once they are ready, and will learn from the experiences of others who have returned earlier."

Britain became a focal point for refugees from Afghanistan after the takeover by the Taliban, and the flow turned into a flood after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States that triggered the war against terrorism.

In 2001, some 9,000 Afghans -- not including dependents -- sought asylum in Britain. Some 2,260 were granted asylum during the year and another 7,370 were given "exceptional leave to remain" in the country.

But the Home Office said last month that since the situation in Afghanistan had stabilized, it would no longer grant "exceptional leave" status automatically to refugees from that country.

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