Lubbers welcomes new Afghanistan agreement
BERLIN - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers on Wednesday hailed the historic agreement for a new interim government in Afghanistan and pledged his agency's support in creating a lasting peace in which millions of Afghans can finally go home.
Addressing a Berlin meeting of the Afghan Support Group, Lubbers noted that the return of the world's largest population of refugees and displaced people will have a significant impact on the stabilization, rehabilitation and economic recovery of Afghanistan.
Even before Sept. 11, he said, there were more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran alone, with many others scattered across 70 countries worldwide. Tens of thousands of Afghans have been born in exile over the past two decades and have never even seen their homeland. Moreover, inside Afghanistan, there are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs).
"Refugees and IDPs represent approximately one-fifth of the Afghan population, and their potential productive capacity should not be underestimated," Lubbers said in a prepared text. "These people are not simply the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid; they are important potential contributors to development."
Warning that history must not repeat itself, Lubbers recalled that there have been previous large-scale refugee returns to Afghanistan - more than 4.5 million facilitated by UNHCR and its partners since 1988. In many cases, however, those returns were not sustainable because of renewed insecurity, human rights abuses, a shattered economy and drought. Now, he said, Afghans and the international community have a new opportunity and "we need to ensure that the necessary conditions are created to allow these refugees to return."
Because of the regional, cross-cutting scope of the refugee and return issue, Lubbers said UNHCR will maintain a "two-pronged" approach focusing both on assistance inside Afghanistan and on the needs of the refugees in neighbouring states. A new UNHCR "Plan of Action" through mid-2002 cites four objectives:
- Voluntary return of refugees - Preparing for the resumption of regional activities aimed at facilitating the voluntary return of refugees to their homes. This will include the identification and promotion of safe environments for return. If appropriate, support will go returnees and local communities in areas of return.
- IDPs - Providing protection and assistance to IDPs and other vulnerable groups inside Afghanistan in support of the UN inter-agency framework.
- Emergency preparedness - Maintaining an adequate regional emergency preparedness capacity.
- Support to refugees in countries of asylum - Continuing provision of protection and assistance to refugees in countries of asylum. This includes both refugees who were in these countries before Sept. 11 and new arrivals.
An estimated 900,000 beneficiaries are covered by the plan. This includes 500,000 IDPs and returnees in Afghanistan; up to 300,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan; up to 80,000 Afghan refugees in Iran; and up to 20,000 Afghan refugees in the Central Asian republics. These figures do not factor in the assistance that was being provided before Sept. 11, both within Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries under UNHCR's existing annual budget.
Lubbers said UNHCR is fully committed to participating in an inter-agency effort inside Afghanistan to help internally displaced people.
"While UNHCR's primary focus in Afghanistan will be on the return and reintegration of refugees, we have informed the UN Humanitarian Coordinator that we are ready to focus on 'cross-cutting' issues that relate to both refugees and IDPs," he said. "In this context, we are willing to assist in addressing the protection concerns of both IDPs and refugees throughout the country. In the north and western regions, the response to the IDP crisis was largely undertaken by other actors prior to the events of Sept. 11. Meanwhile, in other geographical areas, UNHCR is willing to take on a more direct operational responsibility. We are currently in discussions with UNOCHA and other agencies with a view to focusing on providing assistance to IDPs in specific areas - possibly the south, east and central regions of Afghanistan."
Lubbers said thousands of IDPs have already returned to their homes in recent days in Kabul and other places. Refugees are also continuing to return, particularly from Iran, although the numbers remain small. The obstacles to return "should not be underestimated" he said, citing the enormous destruction of homes and infrastructure throughout the country and the scourge of millions of landmines. Longer-term, Lubbers said, UNHCR is in the process of drawing up a comprehensive multi-year repatriation and reintegration plan for refugees.
Lubbers described the Bonn agreement as "an important and historic milestone."
"I congratulate participants for the firm resolve that they have shown to putting Afghanistan back on the road to peace, and for the commitment that they have shown in working together with the United Nations team led by Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi," he said. "I am particularly pleased that two women have been named to senior posts. I hope that women will play a key role in building a new, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan."