Lubbers to visit Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran
GENEVA, Feb 25 (UNHCR) - Departing for Kabul to begin a 10-day mission to the region, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers said Tuesday he was concerned that the world's preoccupation with Iraq could take much-needed attention away from Afghanistan. Lubbers urged the international community to keep helping Afghans returning to their shattered country, still reeling from more than two decades of war.
More than 2 million people have gone back to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, primarily from Pakistan. Another 1.2 million are expected to go back this year from neighbouring countries, in addition to 300,000 internally displaced people who may also return to their pre-war homes. To date, UNHCR has only received $22 million out of the total of $194.7 million needed to pay for the Afghan return operation and to support the Afghan refugees still in exile.
Lubbers said the international community should not forget the continuing, enormous needs in Afghanistan. He said Afghanistan must remain a priority and that ensuring sustainable returns of refugees and the displaced would contribute to long-term stability in the region and the world.
"I think to resist security risks and maybe ... terrorism in the future, we better go for sustainable returns in Afghanistan and make that a real success. This should be the priority today," said Lubbers as he set off on his fourth trip to Afghanistan since assuming office in early 2001.
During the Afghan leg of the trip, Lubbers will visit Nahrin district in Balkh Province, which received the second largest number of returning refugees last year - more than 117,000 people. Only Kabul Province saw more returns, with 650,000. Nahrin was hit by earthquakes in late 2001 and March 2002 that levelled many houses and collapsed irrigation systems. More than 5,000 houses were rebuilt last year in the area by UNHCR, USAID and ECHO.
In the Afghan capital, Kabul, the High Commissioner is scheduled to meet with top-ranking Afghan and UN officials. From there he will travel to Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, where he is scheduled to meet with Pakistani President Musharraf and visit settlements for Afghan refugees getting ready to head home as this year's repatriation season gets underway.
During his two-day visit in Tehran, Mr. Lubbers is scheduled to meet President Khatami and several senior ministers. He also plans to visit Ahwaz, in south-western Iran. There he will meet provincial authorities and officials from the Iranian Red Crescent Society who are involved in assisting Iraqi refugees in Iran. Iran shelters 202,000 Iraqi refugees - more than half the total number of recognised Iraqi refugees in the world. Most of them live among the local community, but some 45,000 Iraqis reside in 22 camps spread throughout the west of the country. Last year 1,100 Iraqi refugees opted to return home from Iran.