High-Level Segment of the 66th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme on the Afghan refugee situation.

High-Level Segment of the 66th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme on the Afghan refugee situation. CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY

Mr. Chairman,

Honorable Ministers,

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you to this year's high level segment of the Executive Committee on the Afghan refugee situation. Your presence will help us draw more international attention to the need to support durable solutions for the world's largest protracted refugee situation.

UNHCR has a special relationship with Afghanistan, and with the two countries that have taken in 95% of Afghan refugees - the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan. Reaching over 6 million people at its peak, this is the biggest refugee situation UNHCR has ever dealt with, as well as the biggest voluntary repatriation operation in our history, with over 5.8 million returnees since 2002. And today, after more than 35 years and with 2.6 million registered refugees remaining in 70 countries, Afghans are also the world's largest protracted refugee population.

We are here because we want the international community to refocus on a situation that is no longer getting the attention it deserves, and because we believe that to ignore Afghanistan would be a dangerous mistake, regardless of the urgency and scale of other, newer crises.

Since the establishment of the Afghan National Unity Government, President Ghani and his administration have committed to making durable solutions for refugees and displaced persons a top national priority, including through the work of the High Commission for Migration which is chaired by the President himself. This historic commitment, along with Afghanistan's strengthened regional cooperation with the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan, offers an important opportunity to make advances in securing durable solutions for the remaining Afghans, with voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity being the one most refugees prefer. But these advances will only be possible if the international community provides significantly more support to these efforts than has so far been the case. Most notably, the regional Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees, developed by the governments of the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan with UNHCR, is the main vehicle for furthering these efforts and needs to be supported more decisively, in particular by development actors.

Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan remains very challenging, as recent events in Kunduz have shown. The number of internally displaced persons now stands at nearly 1 million. Afghans continue to leave the country to file new asylum applications elsewhere, and so far make up nearly 15% of those who have arrived by boat in Europe this year.

But nevertheless, almost 54,000 refugees have returned to Afghanistan in 2015, almost as many as the combined total for the previous two years. They join the millions of others who have returned home since 2002, to a country where one in every five inhabitants is a former refugee. Under the leadership of President Ghani, the Afghan Government has enhanced its mechanisms for the coordination of return and reintegration activities in areas considered safe. Its comprehensive plan for repatriation and integration is an important step in ensuring better access by returnees to shelter, social services and livelihoods - a key aspect for the sustainability of return.

UNHCR is also supporting the Government to ensure that key return areas are taken into account in the implementation of national priority programmes. The Afghanistan projects portfolio of the Solutions Strategy, which will be launched at a side event tomorrow afternoon, sets out the priority areas of engagement for which we strongly appeal for donor support. The aim of these interventions, which were designed to complement the Afghan national development plan, is to support the creation of conditions for sustainable reintegration, targeting high-return areas through community-based investments.

It is precisely because times are difficult that it is so important to support Afghanistan now. The Afghan Government's initiative for an Enhanced Voluntary Return and Reintegration Package for each returnee family merits particular attention, as it will provide increased support to refugee reintegration in the initial phase following their return home. Supported by broader findings on the utility of multi-purpose cash support, this is a key element of the strategy to anchor returning Afghans in their communities, including by facilitating access to land, housing, and livelihoods.

Let me now turn to the two main countries of asylum. The Islamic Republics of Pakistan and Iran have generously hosted millions of Afghan refugees for the past three and a half decades, in an expression of solidarity and compassion with their neighbours that has few parallels in the world today. Between the two of them, these countries still host 2.5 million registered and an estimated 2 million unregistered Afghans.

At the height of the crisis 30 years ago, no one was collecting macroeconomic data to determine the impact of these immense refugee flows on the two neighboring countries. In Europe this year, half a million boat arrivals have overwhelmed capacities in many of the affected countries - most of them EU member states. From this, one cannot even begin to imagine the kind of pressure the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan were facing with over 6 million Afghan refugees at the time.

Their generosity spans over three decades, and continues to be exemplary. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, all foreign children irrespective of their legal status now have the right to be enrolled in the national education system. Nearly a quarter of a million additional students - mostly Afghans - will benefit from this new policy, in a commendable act of foresight which recognizes the crucial need to realize the human potential of the next generation. Similarly, the Iranian Government has decided to include all registered Afghan refugees in the national health insurance scheme on the same basis as its own citizens.

Pakistan, for years the world's largest refugee hosting country, has shown equal generosity in allowing refugees to access basic services and live in peace for the past 36 years. With 70% of the registered Afghan population under 25 years old, most of them second or even third generation refugees, this illustrates the opportunities and challenges inherent in sheltering such large groups of uprooted people. The Government has reiterated its commitment to the voluntary and phased nature of return to Afghanistan, and has generously extended the validity of refugees' Proof of Registration cards until the end of this year. A new draft Afghan Refugee Management and Repatriation plan beyond 2015 that is currently under consideration by the Government of Pakistan envisages voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity, the further extension of PoR cards until the end of 2017 and the recommendation of temporary stay arrangements for registered Afghan nationals in Pakistan.

Iranian and Pakistani host communities have borne the very significant consequences of accommodating such enormous numbers of refugees over such a prolonged period of time. And they also have given refugees the opportunity to acquire skills and education that allows them to make positive contributions to society during exile. Both Governments continue to provide shelter to Afghans, while at the same time working in close concert with the Government of Afghanistan on a common and mutually reinforcing strategy towards durable solutions. Increased international solidarity and burden-sharing are essential at this key juncture, to provide continued support to community-based projects in both countries and contribute to the preservation of protection space for Afghan refugees.

We are here today because the determination of President Ghani and his Government to make progress towards durable solutions for the largest protracted refugee situation in recorded history represents an opportunity which the international community cannot afford to miss. Simply from the point of view of humanitarian response, at a time of record new displacement elsewhere in the world it is clear that gradually resolving old crises is absolutely crucial to avoid becoming entirely overwhelmed with the new ones.

This is not to say that we aren't aware of the enormous challenges that remain - on the contrary. But this meeting was born out of the recognition that effective and sustainable return to Afghanistan is fundamentally important in the effort to stabilize the entire region, and that we cannot let go by a chance to progress towards this goal. Supporting the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the countries hosting its refugees, at this critical point in time is not just a matter of solidarity, but it is in the best interest of us all.

Thank you very much.