International Conference on 40 Years of Hosting Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: A New Partnership for Solidarity
Statement at high-level opening segment in Islamabad, Pakistan
Honourable Prime Minister,
Ladies and gentlemen,
For the last 40 years, as we have heard, the people of Pakistan have stood with their Afghan neighbours.
Through the early days of upheaval and displacement, when a third of the country’s population fled across its borders in just a few years.
Through moments of hope, when millions returned, seeking stability and a future back home.
As the UNHCR representative in Afghanistan, almost 20 years ago, I was personally privileged to be part of a collective, extraordinary effort to support 3 million Afghans return home after years of exile. It was a historic repatriation and – allow me to add – the highlight of my professional experience.
But Pakistan, and of course also Iran, have been with Afghan refugees through bitter times of hardship and loss, renewed conflict and uncertainty.
And through years of efforts to rebuild a fractured nation and secure the peaceful future that the people of Afghanistan deserve.
This is what we are here to mark today: the compassion, the hospitality, the solidarity of the people of the host countries; and the courage and resilience of the Afghan people.
For Afghans, the story of their exile has been a long and painful one – marked by moments of hope and despair; a story that will not be complete until solutions can be found back in their own country.
From the refugee perspective, that path remains uncertain.
Inside Afghanistan, fighting continues to kill and maim civilians, shut down schools and clinics and limit economic activity. More than 400,000 people were displaced within the country last year alone, by conflict, drought and other natural hazards; and just 8,000 refugees were able to return home through the voluntary repatriation programme.
For some refugees, nonetheless, solutions can be possible, even in these difficult circumstances. And I commend the commitment of the Government of Afghanistan to the return and reintegration of its nationals, and to addressing internal displacement.
Improved institutional arrangements have been put in place to drive these efforts; and national Afghan peace and development programmes now include land allocation schemes, and targeted reintegration support. This is valuable work that must be continued and supported in order to create conditions for larger and sustainable returns.
I also welcome the constructive dialogue between the Governments of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, in the framework of the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees launched together with UNHCR in 2012, when the Secretary-General was the High Commissioner for Refugees. Working on solutions is all the more important as efforts to revitalize the peace process in Afghanistan continue and hopefully gain momentum. Afghan displacement can only be solved by peace, and peace will be strengthened by solving forced displacement.
Over the years, the Governments and people of the host countries have not only welcomed Afghans, but have to a large extent absorbed them into the fabric of their societies – as we have seen from the video – always looking ahead to the day when the refugees will be able to return, but recognizing that in the meantime, they deserve the chance to establish a home, to move freely, educate their children, build productive and dignified lives.
Even today, Pakistan and Iran together continue to host 90 per cent of registered Afghan refugees globally – some 2.4 million people. In addition, temporary labour migration and other forms of cross-border movement in the sub-region mean that both countries also host large non-refugee Afghan populations. In recent years, there have been commendable efforts towards identification and documentation of these populations, and enhancing access to passports and work permits. I encourage these efforts to continue and to be accelerated.
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which was for 22 years the world’s largest refugee-hosting country, has been a long-standing global leader in the field of refugee protection. Last December, I was honoured to welcome the Honourable Prime Minister as a co-convenor of the first ever Global Refugee Forum in Geneva.
This generosity has been reflected in inclusive policies to enable access by Afghan refugees to public education and health care – efforts accompanied by pioneering work in the field of biometric registration, and multi-year investments in building social cohesion through the Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas initiative.
And we should not forget that the Government’s recent decision to allow Afghan refugees to open bank accounts will help pave the way to greater economic inclusion.
And we should not forget that the Islamic Republic of Iran has also been a global example. Progressive education policies have driven up literacy rates and transformed the prospects of generations of Afghan refugees.
Refugees in Iran can access free primary health care, and the national health insurance scheme. Work rights have been progressively expanded over the years. Most of these commendable initiatives are funded from Iran’s own resources, despite escalating economic pressures impacting both the refugees and their hosts.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The history of Pakistan’s solidarity with Afghan refugees, which we honour today, shows that generosity has not come without cost. Hosting millions of refugees presents enormous challenges. It has an impact on local economies, on infrastructure, on services, on security and on the environment.
Hosting refugees is a responsibility, exercised on behalf of the international community – a responsibility that, we must recognize, has not been equitably shared. A substantial number of young and mobile Afghans do indeed embark increasingly on dangerous journeys beyond the sub-region, principally towards Europe and the Gulf countries. But the vast majority of refugees remain in the two neighbouring countries – and there, international support, while welcome, remains woefully insufficient.
The Global Compact on Refugees was shaped by the need for more equitable burden-sharing, including in large protracted refugee situations. Now is the time to make that commitment real – here.
To this end, at the Global Refugee Forum in December, we activated a dedicated Support Platform for the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees. I appeal to donors in particular to join the Platform and lend strong support, including through the mobilization of development partners and resources.
The past 40 years have equipped us with a wealth of experience and important lessons.
It is now up to us to use them wisely. Giving up is not an option.
My greatest hope is that this conference for which I thank the Honourable Prime Minsiter and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, will call attention to the human consequences of this protracted crisis, and galvanize progress towards a resolution.
Meanwhile, we cannot abandon Afghan refugees – and Afghans inside the country – to another year, let alone to another decade, of carving out a precarious existence while waiting for peace to come.