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UNHCR: Afghan reconstruction must support returning refugees

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UNHCR: Afghan reconstruction must support returning refugees

21 January 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan - UNHCR's Chief of Mission for Afghanistan today called on representatives attending the two-day Afghan reconstruction conference in Tokyo to remember the crucial reintegration needs of millions of returning refugees.

"One cannot speak of rebuilding Afghan society if millions of people who have been driven out of their homes are excluded," said Filippo Grandi, who heads the refugee agency's mission in Afghanistan.

"I hope the international community will not forget refugees' reintegration needs and will target reconstruction aid not only to urban areas but also to rural villages so that people can finally return to their homes."

UNHCR estimates that there are some 4 million refugees living outside Afghanistan and more than 1.3 million displaced inside their homeland, fleeing years of conflict, drought and a shattered economy.

Since the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001, at least 100,000 refugees have returned from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran and thousands of internally displaced families are beginning to head home, betting on peace in Afghanistan. But few can sustain their lives back home without substantive international assistance to recover the devastated infrastructure, farmland and employment.

This year, UNHCR is preparing for a return and reintegration programme designed to help hundreds of thousands of returning refugees and internally displaced people. The agency plans to provide transport assistance, initial aid packages, shelter assistance, as well as to support quick-impact projects to help revive communities.

"We will do our best to help the returning Afghans, but there is a limit to what the humanitarian aid community can do," Grandi said.

"The challenge is to build a bridge between the immediate humanitarian aid efforts and development agencies' longer-term reconstruction assistance, so that many of the educated and skilled refugees can be incorporated into the society and contribute to the future of Afghanistan."

UNHCR moved its operational headquarters for Afghanistan back to Kabul over the weekend, ending the agency's nearly 10-year exile in Islamabad, Pakistan. After the temporary withdrawal of international staff for nearly three months beginning last September, the agency's five regional offices in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad have now all resumed operation.

The UN refugee agency plans also to expand its presence in Afghanistan this year, including establishing 22 field offices to help returnees in remote communities. But the volatile security situation continues to hamper humanitarian aid operations in many parts of the country.