Lubbers warns against speeding up refugee returns to Afghanistan
KABUL, Jan. 17 (UNHCR) - Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees will likely return home this year, but the pace of returns should not be speeded up, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said at the end of his four-day visit to Afghanistan.
After a meeting with President Hamid Karzai to discuss the need for long-term solutions to the Afghan refugee situation, Lubbers said the rate of return in 2004 was "correct and appropriate." Last year some 760,000 Afghans returned, mostly from Pakistan and Iran.
More than 3.5 million Afghans have returned to their homes since UNHCR began its voluntary repatriation programme in 2002.
During a news conference before leaving Kabul on Saturday, the High Commissioner answered questions about concerns that Iranian authorities might be putting pressure on Afghan refugees to leave the country.
Lubbers said the repatriation from Iran, as well as Pakistan, is governed by a tripartite agreement which is based on the principle that all returns must be voluntary. He said UNHCR is seeking assurances from Iran that Afghan refugees remaining in the country will continue to have access to basic services and that they will not be put under pressure to leave. Talks are currently ongoing with the Iranian authorities on this issue, and UNHCR hopes that these discussions will lead to the renewal of the tripartite agreement when the current one expires in March.
Lubbers and Karzai also discussed whether Afghan refugees would be able to take part in upcoming parliamentary elections.
"I was pleased that Afghan refugees were able to vote in last year's presidential elections," Lubbers said. "The parliamentary elections will be a far more complicated exercise and we need to look at all the dimensions regarding the participation of refugees."
Earlier, in discussions with members of the newly appointed Afghan cabinet as the head of the country's human rights commission., Lubbers emphasized the need to ensure that those Afghans who do decide to return are helped to reintegrate into their places of origin.
Within Afghanistan UNHCR supports the reintegration of returnees through a number of programmes. With assistance from UNHCR and its partners, more than 170,000 homes across Afghanistan have been rebuilt since 2002 and some 8,000 wells or water points have been established in areas of high return.
In places where the return of significant numbers of returnees has created tensions or disputes UNHCR has launched coexistence initiatives which promote dialogue, inclusion and mutual understanding.
During his visit to a village in Parwan province, north of Kabul, the High Commissioner saw first hand how tensions between two communities had been eased through UNHCR interventions.
Disputes over political and military affiliations had existed between the villages of Senjet and Khalazai for decades. Control over the supply of water to Khalazai, which is downstream from Senjet, then became an issue. Through a dual approach of peace-building between the villages and infrastructure improvements to the water supply UNHCR and it partners were able to significantly improve relations between the communities.
"Projects such as this one show what can be accomplished in areas where previously there was conflict, and play an important role in sustaining peaceful reintegration," said Lubbers after meeting village elders.
The High Commissioner also visited the Zhari Dasht camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in southern Kandahar province. Zhary Dasht is the largest of four camps in the region where UNHCR and its partner organizations are providing shelter, food, education and health care to some 145,000 people.
Many of Zhari Dasht's 50,000 residents were forced to leave their homes because of a severe drought that has affected areas of southern Afghanistan for nearly a decade. The camp also provides shelter to a large number of ethnic Pashtuns who fled their homes in the north of the country fearing retribution following the fall of Taliban.
"The first priority, whether it is for internally displaced people here in Zhari Dhast or refugees in other countries, is that they be able to return to their place of origin," said Lubbers. "This is what most want. But many will want to stay where they are. In the case of Zhari Dasht that that is only possible if they can support themselves either as a result of vocational training or land distribution. Then they can be seen as an asset to the region rather than a liability."
Last year the UN refugee agency assisted nearly 20,000 internally displaced persons to return to their homes. With the election of President Karzai in October and expectations of improved security across much of the country it's predicted that 2005 will see greater numbers of IDPs return to their communities than in 2004.
Before arriving in Afghanistan the High Commissioner made a brief stop in Pakistan where he formally endorsed plans to conduct a census of Afghans living in Pakistan. The census, to be held in February, will include all Afghans who arrived in Pakistan after November 1979. UNHCR is covering the nearly US$ 800,000 dollar cost of the first phase of the census. The census should provide information that will enable UNHCR and the government of Pakistan to identify and categorize groups within the Afghan population in Pakistan and to design appropriate responses.
The repatriation of more than three million Afghans since 2002 represents UNHCR's largest operation in its 53-year history. Throughout his visit to Afghanistan - his sixth since being appointed High Commissioner four years ago - Ruud Lubbers praised the results achieved so far, while highlighting the challenges that remain.