High Commissioner meets Afghan leader as returnees from Pakistan cross 250,000
KABUL, Afghanistan, April 16 (UNHCR) - High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers today met Chairman Hamid Karzai of the Afghan Interim Administration to discuss the UN refugee agency's strategy for the repatriation and reintegration of Afghan refugees and internally displaced people. The meeting took place a day after Afghan returnees from Pakistan crossed the 250,000 mark.
"Security is indispensable to repatriation, but more importantly, successful reintegration will lead to stability," Lubbers told Karzai in a 40-minute meeting at the presidential palace. Karzai assured him that reintegration is one of the top priorities of the Interim Administration, and thanked him for UNHCR's long involvement in and assistance to Afghans.
Lubbers said security in the countryside is a key issue to encourage returnees to go to rural areas instead of heading only to the cities. "That means we need assistance packages. We are basically concentrating on shelter and water at UNHCR, but we are working with other organisations for other things as well," he said.
After arriving in Kabul, the High Commissioner visited the Pul-I-Charkhi centre in the outskirts of the city. This is where returnees from Pakistan receive a travel grant of $20 per person or $100 per family of five, a UNHCR package of relief supplies and 150 kilogrammes of food from the World Food Programme.
More than 250,000 Afghans in Pakistan have returned home under an assistance programme launched on March 1 by UNHCR, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today also marked the start of assisted repatriations from the capital region of Islamabad. Some 100 Afghans left for Kabul, many of whom were highly educated people - teachers, engineers and an economist. Some had quit their jobs in Islamabad to return to their shattered houses in the capital region.
"They need teachers in my country now," said 35-year-old Hamid. "It is time for me to return after three years in a foreign country."
Rashida, a widow and mother of four, also hoped to resume her job as a high school teacher in Kabul, She said she will have to rent a house since hers was completely destroyed. Her teenage son was very excited about the journey, even though he hardly remembers the city as his family had fled Kabul when he was very young.
At the current rate of returns, Lubbers said he expects that this year's target figure of 400,000 returns from Pakistan will probably be reached this summer.
On repatriation from Iran, the High Commissioner said the operation, which started on April 9, will likely pick up substantially after a slow start. "Many of the Afghan refugees have found jobs in Iran, so they will take more time to make their decision before going home. I have the impression that you will see the phenomenon of the man going back first to inspect how it is before letting the family come back," he said.
Asked about a funding shortfall for Afghanistan, Lubbers said he had told donors "not to let me down, but there is always a difficulty to translate that in cash." As of 10 April, UNHCR has raised more than $160 million of the $271 million needed for the period October 2001 to December 2002. He said his message to donors is that "if you love Afghanistan, you'd better give funds for repatriation."
Lubbers pointed out that unlike the International Security Assistance Force, UNHCR is "very much in the forefront" in Afghanistan with a strong presence in the countryside. The refugee agency has 20 offices and field units manned by 322 national and 75 international staff members.
On Wednesday, the High Commissioner is to proceed to Jalalabad, visit a camp for internally displaced people at Hesar Shahi and a centre at Mohmandara providing transportation expenses to returnees. Then he heads for Peshawar and Islamabad in Pakistan, where he will meet with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
The eight-day visit to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan is Lubbers' third trip to the region in a year.