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Year of return and partnerships, but challenges remain, says Lubbers

News Stories, 8 October 2004

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers at a press conference in Geneva after he closed the 55th annual session of UNHCR's Executive Committee.

GENEVA, Oct 8 (UNHCR) Hailing 2004 as the year of return and partnerships, UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers today stressed the need for greater burden-sharing in the face of challenges like restrictive asylum policies, continuing violence and irregular secondary movements of people.

The High Commissioner made these comments at the close of the 55th annual session of UNHCR's Executive Committee in Geneva on Friday.

"2004 was referred to as 'the year of return'," Lubbers told UNHCR's 66-nation governing body, pointing to the large and successful repatriation operations in Africa, the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. "I share your satisfaction at the decline in the number of refugees and asylum seekers, as well as the conviction that much remains to be done."

Some member States had expressed "fear that a generalised trend toward more restrictive policies could hinder the consolidation of the asylum regime and its effective implementation," said Lubbers, who saw this less friendly climate as an impetus to strengthen implementation of the Agenda for Protection.

"This includes preserving humanitarian space in face of the challenges posed by deteriorating security environments, for example in the Caucasus, and the mischaracterisation of international refugee instruments as providing a safe haven for terrorists, rather than specifically providing for their exclusion from refugee protection, as they actually do," he elaborated.

The phenomenon of mixed flows also came up during the debate. Using North Korea as an example, Lubbers said, "Our response must be to ask how anyone can be certain there are no refugees in a given group."

The issue is currently in the spotlight with the deportation of new arrivals on Italy's Lampedusa island to Libya. "Finally, we have access to Lampedusa but let's be honest: it's a bit too late," said Lubbers, adding that UNHCR has also been denied access to asylum seekers in Libya.

He noted that from UNHCR's perspective, the Mediterranean issue has three components. First, to build up protection capacity in north African States. Second, to cope with people intercepted on the high seas through a responsibility- and burden-sharing system. Third, to ensure that individuals who have entered a European Union member state will be treated and screened in conformity with the Tampere principles.

The High Commissioner stressed that States should not forget humanitarian and legal standards while protecting their interests: "We must be guided by a desire to share, not shift, the burden."

Burden-sharing is one of the key elements of the Convention Plus initiative for durable solutions. "Convention Plus is no longer a promise for the future. It is a reality today," said Lubbers. "We have made considerable strides since the introduction of Convention Plus two years ago, both on burden-sharing and solutions for more refugees, as well as developing tools to do even better."

Also relevant is the "4Rs" programme of repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction for refugees. "Several delegations, particularly representatives from Africa, spoke of the need to break the cycle of violence in order to make refugee return sustainable," said Lubbers. "I salute the focus of the African Union on the security dimension. There can be no development if violence is allowed to continue. I observe more and more implementation of the 4Rs, not only by UNHCR, but more importantly, by the UN and international financial institutions."

There is a need to consolidate existing successes, he said. In south-eastern Europe, this includes "ensuring right to return for everyone who chooses to, supporting local integration, and the transition to reconstruction."

In Afghanistan, "the unprecedented registration of refugees for tomorrow's Presidential election over 750,000 voters in Pakistan alone demonstrates clearly that the international community cannot afford to walk away from the reconstruction of that country," said the High Commissioner.

He welcomed a pledge by European Commission for continued financial assistance to the Afghanistan Comprehensive Solutions initiative, which will help UNHCR to expand the discussion to non-neighbouring countries that host Afghans. "I repeat, not all Afghans abroad should be forced to go home. There are Afghans who are able to contribute if only temporarily to the economy of their host states," he said.

He also reiterated the refugee agency's commitment to finding solutions for long-running situations like Great Lakes and Burundi "which stand at historical crossroads" as well as Somalia, the Bhutanese in Nepal and displaced Colombians.

Looking back on this year's Executive Committee meeting which started on Monday, Lubbers said, "This was a partnerships ExCom." He noted UNHCR's co-sponsorship of UNAIDS and its work with the World Food Programme to fight the problem of food shortage for refugees. Non-governmental and regional organisations like the African Union are also valuable partners, he added.

On UNHCR's funding situation, the High Commissioner thanked donors for their contributions and UNHCR's improved outlook. However, he cautioned, "Although we have received $10 million in contributions since my appeal two weeks ago, our 2004 Annual Budget still has a shortfall of some $60 million.... As the Netherlands put it, our funding situation has improved but remains precarious."

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Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Convention Plus

International initiative aimed at improving refugee protection worldwide and to facilitate the resolution of refugee problems through multilateral special agreements.

Return to Swat Valley

Thousands of displaced Pakistanis board buses and trucks to return home, but many remain in camps for fear of being displaced again.

Thousands of families displaced by violence in north-west Pakistan's Swat Valley and surrounding areas are returning home under a government-sponsored repatriation programme. Most cited positive reports about the security situation in their home areas as well as the unbearable heat in the camps as key factors behind their decision to return. At the same time, many people are not yet ready to go back home. They worry about their safety and the lack of access to basic services and food back in Swat. Others, whose homes were destroyed during the conflict, are worried about finding accommodation. UNHCR continues to monitor people's willingness to return home while advocating for returns to take place in safety and dignity. The UN refugee agency will provide support for the transport of vulnerable people wishing to return, and continue to distribute relief items to the displaced while assessing the emergency shelter needs of returnees. More than 2 million people have been displaced since early May in north-west Pakistan. Some 260,000 found shelter in camps, but the vast majority have been staying with host families or in rented homes or school buildings.

Return to Swat Valley

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

Beyond the smiles of homecoming lie the harsh realities of return. With more than 5 million Afghans returning home since 2002, Afghanistan's absorption capacity is reaching saturation point.

Landmine awareness training at UNHCR's encashment centres – their first stop after returning from decades in exile – is a sombre reminder of the immense challenges facing this war-torn country. Many returnees and internally displaced Afghans are struggling to rebuild their lives. Some are squatting in tents in the capital, Kabul. Basic needs like shelter, land and safe drinking water are seldom met. Jobs are scarce, and long queues of men looking for work are a common sight in marketplaces.

Despite the obstacles, their spirit is strong. Returning Afghans – young and old, women and men – seem determined to do their bit for nation building, one brick at a time.

Posted on 31 January 2008

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

Afghans Return Home

In the six months since some 150 families returned from Pakistan's Jalozai refugee village, they have faced land problems and ethnic tensions. Today, however, they face the prospect of spending a bitter winter in northern Afghanistan with little more for shelter than canvas tents.

After 23 years of exile in Pakistan, Qayum and his family returned home to northern Afghanistan earlier this year ago after negotiating to buy land in Sholgara district. But a local tribe refused to let Qayum and his neighbours unload their trucks. The provincial authorities moved them to their current site at Mohajir Qeshlaq. The government has promised Qayum and his neighbours land, but until individual plots can be demarcated and distributed, nobody can build. This means that the entire returnee village - some 150 families - lives under canvas. As the weather turns cold, the prospect of spending an Afghan winter in a tent becomes reality. Returnees also face a food shortage, insufficient water and lack of livelihood opportunities.

In an effort to help, UNHCR will provide supplies to Qayum and his community through the winter. Once the land issue is resolved, the agency will also dig wells and provide shelter assistance to the most vulnerable families at Mohajir Qeshlaq. But it will take more to turn this makeshift settlement into something they can call home.

Afghans Return Home

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