UNHCR steps up aid operations in SE Afghanistan as donors meet Afghan budget
KHOST, Afghanistan, November 18 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency is boosting its assistance activities in the long-volatile border region of south-eastern Afghanistan in anticipation that more refugees could head back to the area next year following a "significant improvement" in the security situation.
The head of UNHCR's Afghan operations, Filippo Grandi, travelled through areas of Afghanistan bordering on Pakistan last week, visiting communities in Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces where the refugee agency has been distributing agricultural aid and is starting various water projects.
Grandi confirmed that while security has been a problem for relief agencies in a region that has long been the scene of factional fighting and regular operations by the United States-led coalition seeking out Taliban and Al Qaida groups, "there has been a significant improvement in the security situation there".
During Grandi's recent mission to the region, leaders and local residents said they expect more refugees to start returning from next year onwards, provided that there is an international presence and that the security situation remains stable.
UNHCR is gearing up its assistance activities to help the region absorb a larger number of returnees next year. The agency expects that many of the 200,000 to 300,000 refugees from the area who are currently settled in camps across the mountainous frontier in neighbouring Pakistan could begin to go home in 2003.
"Khost seems relatively calm," said UNHCR spokeswoman Maki Shinohara, who recently visited the region together with Grandi.
Over the last eight months, more than 24,500 refugees have returned to neighbouring Ghazni province. Refugee returns to south-eastern Afghanistan have so far been relatively small, said Shinohara.
UNHCR staff based at the agency's offices in Khost, the principal town in Paktia province near the Pakistan border, only recorded some 500 families - about 2,500 people - returning so far this year. Afghanistan has received more than 1.7 million returning refugees since the UN refugee agency started facilitating returns in March.
Shinohara said locals believe that the refugees might find more jobs back home than they can currently find in adjacent regions of Pakistan, and that people will start coming back.
She called the region the "final frontier for UN aid operations in Afghanistan" due to the fragile security situation. UNHCR's office in Khost, where access has been most difficult due to fighting in the area, reopened this June after being looted in September 2001. The agency's office in Ghazni office was robbed in August by armed gunmen who locked staff in a closet while they made off with office equipment and supplies.
UNHCR has been working in the area since the Taliban were swept from power a year ago. In Gardez, capital of Paktia, the agency has delivered seeds and fertilisers to returnee communities.
Despite the often fragile security situation over the last year, UNHCR has maintained offices in Ghazni, Gardez and Khost thanks to local Afghan staff who continued to work during periods when security was a problem. Three international staff are now assigned to the region, with Grandi calling on the agency and its partners to increase capacity in the long-forgotten corner of the country.
In Paktia, UNHCR is funding the cleaning and rehabilitation of nine karez, the traditional system of wells, underground tunnels and access ducts that channel water to many Afghan communities and surrounding farms. The refugee agency also recently signed agreements with its partner agencies to dig 30 tube wells in 15 of Paktia's villages where returning refugees have been arriving over recent months.
Fresh contributions of funds from Denmark, Japan and the European Community Humanitarian Office have met UNHCR's budgetary requirements for Afghanistan and the surrounding region. The agency's 15-month budget ending in December 2002 is $271 million, and with the latest contributions, more than $273.8 million has been received.