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Refugees Magazine Issue 133 (Afghanistan: The Most Important Operation) - Editorial: "Going home... the good news"

Refugees Magazine Issue 133 (Afghanistan: The Most Important Operation) - Editorial: "Going home... the good news"

1 January 2004

In the mid-1990s, UNHCR cared for some 27 million people, more than at any other period in its 53-year history. Since then, the numbers have slowly declined. In 2001, two million refugees and other persons 'of concern' were taken off the agency's rolls. The following year, 2002, the latest for which comprehensive statistics are available, the overall figure of people in need of help remained relatively stable at around 20.6 million. But that obscured an important and encouraging trend - far more people were continuing to go home than there were new refugees fleeing.

In that period, the number of civilians who had returned to their towns and villages but UNHCR was now helping to restart their lives, rose from less than 500,000 to nearly 2.5 million. In contrast, the number of people receiving assistance in emergency type situations dropped from 18.3 million to some 16 million.

The year 2003 was a period of consolidation in this trend. Major movements in areas such as Afghanistan, Angola and Sri Lanka continued, but at a reduced rate. This will likely be repeated during the forthcoming 12 months, and with hard work and a little luck during various peace initiatives currently underway, several new repatriations may begin back to places such as Sudan.

The distressing news is that humanitarian work is under threat as never before. The August 19 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in which 22 persons were killed and scores wounded underlined that what has been described as the 'moral shield' which protected aid workers, has been seriously compromised and that field staff, both international and local, are now seen as potential targets for religious zealots, irregular armies and militias around the world.

In November, that threat came dreadfully true when UNHCR's Bettina Goislard, a 29- year-old French national working in Ghazni city south of the Afghan capital of Kabul, was cold-bloodedly murdered by two gunmen on a motorcycle.

Physical danger in refugee situations will never be totally eliminated, but the major challenge for agencies such as UNHCR in the coming months will be to devise operational strategies to guarantee reasonable safety for their staff while allowing them to effectively help millions of people in need.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 133: "Afghanistan: The Most Important Operation" (January 2004).