UNHCR chief ends Pakistan visit to review protracted Afghan situation

News Stories, 28 August 2008

© UNHCR/A.Shahzad
High Commissioner António Guterres (extreme left) discussing refugee issues with Pakistan Minister for States and Frontier Regions Najmuddin Khan (extreme right) in Islamabad.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, August 28 (UNHCR) UN refugee agency chief António Guterres today completed a three-day visit to Pakistan during which the government agreed to revise its Afghan repatriation strategy beyond 2009. Both parties also reached a strong consensus on projects to develop refugee-hosting areas in Pakistan.

After arriving in Islamabad on Tuesday, High Commissioner Guterres met with Pakistan's leaders, including Prime Minister Syed Yousef Raza Gilani and Minister of States and Frontier Regions Najmuddin Khan. Guterres also met with top officials in the interior and foreign Ministries.

"Pakistan is UNHCR's biggest partner, hosting the world's largest refugee population for so many years," said Guterres. "No other country has shown such generosity towards its neighbours, and it's important to mobilize more support amongst the international community for this great effort."

The High Commissioner stressed that the protracted Afghan situation is among his top priorities this year. "We are working on a comprehensive strategy that involves assisting the host communities in Pakistan, fully supporting voluntary repatriation and reintegration, while keeping in mind the challenges in Afghanistan," he said.

More than 3.4 million Afghans have been assisted home from Pakistan since 2002, leaving an estimated 1.8 million registered Afghans still living in Pakistan today.

Minister Khan noted that repatriation is the preferred solution for Afghan refugees, adhering to the principles of voluntarism and gradualism. "The government of Pakistan is in the process of reviewing the three-year repatriation strategy [originally due to end in December 2009] in accordance with the ground realities," he said. "The revised strategy has to be time-bound on a medium-term basis. Pakistan's concerns will also need to be addressed."

On the need for more reintegration assistance to sustain returns in Afghanistan, Guterres said that an International Conference on Return and Reintegration will be held in Kabul in mid-November. Co-organized by the Afghan government and UNHCR, the event seeks to galvanize support for the refugees, returnees and internally displaced people (IDPs) sector strategy under the Afghanistan National Development Strategy.

As an additional step to share Pakistan's burden of hosting refugees, the High Commissioner presented a pilot project proposal for the refugee-affected and hosting areas (RAHA) in Balochistan and North-West Frontier Province.

"The UN team in Pakistan is fully committed to the RAHA initiative and will appeal for resources to support it," said Guterres about the UN joint programme. "The projects are designed to benefit selected areas of Pakistan by rehabilitating and upgrading infrastructure and services in the sectors of water, sanitation, health care, primary education, environment and livelihood."

Before he left Pakistan on Thursday, the UNHCR chief also met with the UN country team and member countries of the Group of Eight and the European Union to mobilize support for the RAHA project proposal and the coming international conference in Kabul.

By Vivian Tan and Babar Baloch in Islamabad, Pakistan