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High Commissioner arrives in Tehran on first stop of three-nation mission

High Commissioner arrives in Tehran on first stop of three-nation mission

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers arrives in Tehran at the start of a three-nation mission on his continued search for solutions for displaced Afghans. Despite massive returns to Afghanistan, large numbers of Afghan refugees remain in Iran and Pakistan.
13 April 2004
Afghans at the Zhare Dasht camp for returnees and IDPs outside the southern Afghanistan town of Kandahar.

TEHRAN, April 13 (UNHCR) - The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, arrived in the Iranian capital, Tehran, in the early hours of Tuesday morning at the start of an eight-day, three-nation mission, focused mainly on the continued search for solutions for displaced Afghans.

He will also be visiting Afghanistan itself and its other big refugee-hosting neighbour, Pakistan, during his visit to the region.

Since the removal of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001, well over 3 million Afghans have returned to their homes, mostly with help from the UN refugee agency. Of these, around 2.5 million have returned from Iran and Pakistan (2.3 million of them directly assisted by UNHCR). In addition, some 800,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have also returned to their homes.

However, despite the colossal scale of the return, a similar number of Afghans are still living as refugees in Pakistan and Iran, so in many respects the job is only half done.

The importance that UNHCR places on the continuing hunt for solutions for the remaining refugees is underlined by the fact that this is Lubbers' sixth visit to the region in just under three years.

During his talks with Ministers in all three countries, Lubbers will be focusing on a wide range of issues related to the ongoing voluntary repatriation programmes, which are currently scheduled to continue up until 2005. He will also be looking ahead to the longer-term future of Afghan displacement in a region where the fundamental dynamics have shifted fairly dramatically over the past two and a half years.

In Afghanistan, where he is scheduled to have meetings with President Hamid Karzai and four of his Ministers, Lubbers is expected to stress the importance of keeping the repatriation of refugees in focus, in spite of the many other urgent priorities jostling for the government's attention. UNHCR recently pointed out that the rate of return so far in 2004 - just under 60,000 since 1 March - actually exceeds the rate of return during the same period of 2003.

Increasingly, the UN agency believes, its own tools for facilitating return and successful reintegration will prove insufficient unless these issues are fully integrated into broader strategies aimed at development and improved security.

Lubbers will also be paying close attention to the issue of internally displaced Afghans. Although around 80 percent of the IDPs have gone home since the beginning of 2002 - many of them also helped by UNHCR and its NGO partners - there are still some 200,000 remaining, mostly located in camps in southern and western Afghanistan. He will visit one of the biggest camps for displaced people in the Kandahar region, and is expected to stress during talks with the government and other interlocutors that removing the obstacles preventing the return of the remaining IDPs is an important element of national reconciliation.

Both IDPs and refugees cite insecurity, lack of jobs, and problems linked to land ownership or access, as their three principal concerns.