Return of Afghan refugees entering new phase, says High Commissioner
KABUL, Afghanistan, November 23 (UNHCR) - The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, today called on the Government of Afghanistan to take into account the needs of returned refugees when it put its development plans to a conference on the country's future to be held in London early next year.
Speaking at a press conference at the end a two-day mission to Afghanistan, his first visit to the country since becoming High Commissioner in June, Guterres also stressed the need for Pakistan and Iran to be involved in developing a long-term solution to the issue of population movement in the region.
"I encourage all three governments, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, to play a constructive role in addressing this issue, together with the UN refugee agency," Guterres told journalists.
Some 500,000 Afghans have returned home this year, bringing the total number of returns since UNHCR began its repatriation programme in 2002 to nearly three million. Asked for his view of future returns, Guterres was optimistic: "Afghans will continue to return to their homeland in large numbers," he said. "But there will be those who will take longer to make that decision. Those Afghans who do not return in the short-term should continue to have the right to a decent life in their countries of asylum."
Earlier in the day, the High Commissioner visited UNHCR operations near the eastern city of Jalalabad. In the village of Saracha, where more than a third of the 3,500 families had been refugees in Pakistan, he toured a number of UNHCR projects, including a micro-hydro power plant and fish farm, which are helping returnees to reintegrate into their old communities. Saracha also boasts primary and secondary schools as well as two health clinics.
However, it was a very different scene at the remote area known as the Tangi Cluster on the outskirts of Jalalabad. The site is home to some 250 families who returned suddenly following the Pakistani government's decision to close all refugee camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which border Afghanistan.
"You have suffered a lot," Guterres told the settlement's residents. "First you had to leave you homes due to war in your country. Now you have returned to these poor conditions. Our resources are limited, but UNHCR will do everything in our capacity to help you."
The UN refugee agency is already working with government ministries and other organizations to provide families living in the Tangi Cluster with a school and an on-site health clinic. Water, already available from reservoirs spread around the settlement, will soon be piped across the community.
"What we can provide is small compared to the need," said Guterres. "It's important that the Afghan government together with the international community and development agencies address the long-term needs facing the country."
One the first day of his visit the High Commissioner met with President Karzai, where he congratulated the Afghan leader on the successful completion of September's national assembly elections, which effectively ends the Bonn Process begun in 2001 that set out a framework for the creation of a new Afghan constitution and a timetable for presidential and parliamentary elections.
"We're now entering a new stage in the return and reintegration of Afghan refugees," the High Commissioner said during the meeting. "Return will continue to be the main solution for Afghans living in asylum countries, but a new approach needs to be developed, and UNHCR remains committed to finding a durable solution."
From Afghanistan, Guterres travels to Pakistan where he will visit UNHCR earthquake relief operations as well as discussing ongoing refugee issues with the government of Pakistan.