Afghanistan signs 1951 Refugee Convention

News Stories, 2 September 2005

© UNHCR/N.Behring-Chisholm
Afghanistan's accession to the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol is testimony to the remarkable progress the country has made towards recovery, supported by returnees like these in Kabul.

GENEVA, Sept 2 (UNHCR) Afghanistan has signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, a significant sign of recovery for a country that used to be one of the world's largest producers of refugees and asylum seekers.

In a press statement today, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres welcomed Afghanistan's accession to the Convention and Protocol, which takes effect this week after several months of close collaboration between UNHCR and Afghan authorities.

"It is possible at times to forget the true meaning of the refugee Convention, but if anyone can understand its significance, it is the people of Afghanistan," said Guterres. "During the long, dark years of fighting and extremism, millions of Afghans had to flee their homeland to seek refuge elsewhere. It is testimony to the remarkable progress Afghanistan has made on the road to recovery that it is now able to join the Convention."

With the accession, Afghanistan enshrines in international law its long-standing tradition of asylum. Despite being embroiled in decades of war and civil conflict, Afghanistan kept its doors open to refugees notably those from Central Asia, like the tens of thousands who fled Tajikistan's civil war in the early 1990s.

Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, more than 3.5 million Afghans have repatriated from neighbouring Iran and Pakistan in one of the largest refugee repatriation operations in UNHCR's 54-year history. The UN refugee agency has also been working in Afghanistan to support the authorities' efforts to reintegrate the millions of newly-returned people.

"The accession to the international refugee Convention and Protocol is a very significant step for Afghanistan," the Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Dr. Azam Dadfar, said in Kabul. "So many Afghans have experienced exile and know how important it is to be treated with respect and dignity as refugees. We are, therefore, particularly pleased to be joining the community of signatory states, to strengthen our cooperation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and to add our voice to those committed to provide protection to refugees. Afghanistan will be proud to respect its obligations under these important international instruments."

Afghanistan is the 146th country to ratify either the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Iran which has hosted millions of Afghan refugees over the years has also signed the Convention. UNHCR hopes that Pakistan, which has also generously hosted millions of Afghans, will soon join as well.

There are now just under 1 million Afghan refugees in Iran. A recent census showed that more than 3 million Afghans live in Pakistan, though not all of them are "of concern" to UNHCR. A significant number are expected to choose to repatriate, but it is also likely that some Afghans will want to remain in their countries of asylum, where some have been living for decades as well-integrated, productive members of society.

Recognising a return to more normal conditions in the region, consultations have been underway between Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and the international community on the development of a broader management framework that would provide not only for refugees, but also for other forms of population movement. In this context, Afghanistan's accession to the Convention marks yet another step towards greater regional stability and cooperation.

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Rebuilding Lives in Afghanistan

With elections scheduled in October, 2004 is a crucial year for the future of Afghanistan, and Afghans are returning to their homeland in record numbers. In the first seven months of 2004 alone, more than half a million returned from exile. In all, more than 3.6 million Afghans have returned since UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme started in 2002.

The UN refugee agency and its partner organisations are working hard to help the returnees rebuild their lives in Afghanistan. Returnees receive a grant to cover basic needs, as well as access to medical facilities, immunisations and landmine awareness training.

UNHCR's housing programme provides tool kits and building supplies for families to build new homes where old ones have been destroyed. The agency also supports the rehabilitation of public buildings as well as programmes to rehabilitate the water supply, vocational training and cash-for-work projects.

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The cycle of life has started again in Afghanistan as returnees put their shoulders to the wheel to rebuild their war-torn country.

Return is only the first step on Afghanistan's long road to recovery. UNHCR is helping returnees settle back home with repatriation packages, shelter kits, mine-awareness training and vaccination against diseases. Slowly but surely, Afghans across the land are reuniting with loved ones, reconstructing homes, going back to school and resuming work. A new phase in their lives has begun.

Watch the process of return, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction unfold in Afghanistan through this gallery.

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Home Without Land

Land is hot property in mountainous Afghanistan, and the lack of it is a major reason Afghans in exile do not want to return.

Although landless returnees are eligible for the Afghan government's land allocation scheme, demand far outstrips supply. By the end of 2007, the authorities were developing 14 settlements countrywide. Nearly 300,000 returnee families had applied for land, out of which 61,000 had been selected and 3,400 families had actually moved into the settlements.

Desperate returnees sometimes have to camp in open areas or squat in abandoned buildings. Others occupy disputed land where aid agencies are not allowed to build permanent structures such as wells or schools.

One resilient community planted itself in a desert area called Tangi in eastern Afghanistan. With help from the Afghan private sector and the international community, water, homes, mosques and other facilities have sprouted – proof that the right investment and commitment can turn barren land into the good earth.

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