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States, organisations review progress of "Convention Plus" initiative

News Stories, 20 May 2005

© UNHCR/L.Slezic
Afghan returnees rebuilding their home in Kabul. With growing urbanisation, more development aid is needed to meet demands like social housing for vulnerable families.

GENEVA, May 20 (UNHCR) Around 100 delegates from states, non-governmental organizations and other institutions and agencies gathered in Geneva on Friday to take stock of the progress of the "Convention Plus" initiative launched in mid-2003 by the UN refugee agency.

The Convention Plus initiative aims to provide a more systematic and structured approach to finding lasting solutions to refugee situations, especially protracted refugee situations, through more effective means of inter-state cooperation and burden-sharing.

At this fourth meeting of the High Commissioner's Forum as the periodic meetings on Convention Plus are called there was a general consensus that some definite progress had been made, especially at the theoretical level, but that a lot more needs to be done to fulfil the potential of this important initiative in terms of delivering real benefits on the ground.

"Convention Plus is not a luxury, nor simply an interesting appendix attached to the periphery of UNHCR's mandate," said Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees Kamel Morjane during his opening statement. "This initiative lies at the very heart of our mandate, which is devoted to international protection and the search for durable solutions."

Morjane pointed out that finding solutions to refugee problems was not something that could be pursued in isolation, but was inextricably entwined with other major issues namely international migration, sustainable development and the preservation of peace and security a point underlined by a representative of the World Bank who made a presentation on the progress of national Poverty Reduction Strategies, and the extent to which they do, or do not, take account of refugees and returnees.

The Assistant High Commissioner also pointed out the importance of integrating protection and solutions for refugees into the strategies for achieving the Millennium Development Goals which will themselves go through a major stock-taking exercise at a major world summit in September this year. An accompanying paper on this issue pointed to successes in Zambia and Uganda, where targeted development in areas hosting large populations of refugees has been shown to have a beneficial impact on alleviating poverty among both the refugees and the local population, as well as examples from various other countries illustrating how, when given the opportunity, displaced and returnee populations can make a difference in terms of meeting the eight Millennium Development Goals.

The delegates were also given a paper outlining good practices by donor states, host countries and UN agencies, NGOs, development banks and other relevant actors in targeting development assistance in the effort to provide durable solutions to forced displacement. In addition to defining "good practices", the paper outlined the examples of nine countries Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ecuador, Serbia and Montenegro, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia where various good practices are already apparent to a greater or lesser degree. Several representatives of these nine states then gave their own opinion of what progress had been achieved and how this was linked to the Convention Plus ideas.

But for each success, there remained a cautionary tale of how much still remained to be achieved.

Afghanistan's Deputy Minister for Rural Rehabilitation and Development, Mohammad Ehsan Zia, described the phenomenal transformation of his country in the three-and-a-half years since the Taliban regime was removed from power. In that time, he said, more than 3.5 million refugees have returned home, alongside 800,000 internally displaced people. He then outlined a long list of measures that have been taken to enhance their reintegration, with some considerable success.

But the challenges remain enormous: a "ballooning urban population", especially in Kabul where the population increased from 1.7 million people in 2000 to more than 2.5 million in 2003, as a result of refugee and IDP returns as well as an influx of rural poor in search of a better standard of living.

"Afghanistan today faces an unprecedented trend of urbanization, but the government lacks a viable urban development strategy and the policy and means to address the need for social housing for vulnerable households," he said.

Other major problems include a lack of job opportunities for returnees and the resident population alike, and widespread land and property issues resulting from more than 25 years of war and displacement.

The Afghan deputy minister could have been speaking on behalf of many other refugee- or returnee-hosting countries, as he stressed the importance of targeted development assistance: "While we are encouraged and appreciative of the great support we have received to date, we are increasingly worried that while the so-called 'humanitarian funding stream' is diminishing, the 'development funding stream' is not forthcoming in a manner that enables us to put in place viable, government-led development efforts."

This sentiment reflected the general consensus that while Convention Plus was working well in highlighting the problems and outlining various paths to achieve better and quicker solutions, the translation of those ideas into reality needs a shot of extra urgency.

By Rupert Colville in Geneva

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Convention Plus

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