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Opening Remarks by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (Co-Chairman), at the International Conference on Return and Reintegration of Afghan Refugees, Kabul, 19 November 2008

Speeches and statements

Opening Remarks by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (Co-Chairman), at the International Conference on Return and Reintegration of Afghan Refugees, Kabul, 19 November 2008

19 November 2008

(As delivered)

Mr. Co-Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be with you today in Kabul, and to co-chair this important event with my esteemed colleague, Foreign Minister Doctor Spanta.

Let me first express my deep gratitude to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its officials for all the hard work that has been put into the preparation for today's meeting. I wish also to thank the host and donor countries for their consistently generous support to the Afghan refugees and, more particularly, to UNHCR's operation.

Today's event underlines the importance that UNHCR continues to attach to the Afghan situation. Next year will mark our twentieth year in Afghanistan and our thirtieth since our support to Afghan refugees first began. We have been witness to Afghanistan's changing political fortunes over this long period. But our support and commitment to finding solutions for the refugees from this country will never falter. After everything that they have experienced, the people of Afghanistan deserve no less.


I have been in Ningahar and Kabul during the last two days. Fully 45% of all 5.6 million Afghans who have returned since 2002 have settled there. It was uplifting to see the courage and resilience of people rebuilding their lives again. It represents a huge challenge to the Afghan authorities facing their needs on the ground. A very noble task for Minister Ettebari of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation in his leadership role.

More than 5 million Afghan refugees have returned home in 2002, some 20% of the estimated population. This has been a very positive signal of how Afghanistan's fortunes have changed for the better. Most of all it reflects the courage and determination of the Afghan people.

Are there difficulties? Of course there are. And there will continue to be problems. Few developed countries could absorb such a huge population increase in so short a period without showing some sign of economic and social stress.

But in a country where there is hardly a family that has not been touched by conflict and displacement at some point in the last 30 years, the overall solidarity displayed by the host population with their returning citizenry has been exceptional. All concerned can be justifiably proud of the progress made.

Our work, however, is very far from over. As has often been the case in our long search for solutions to this most complex of refugee situations, we are approaching another important moment. Our voluntary repatriation figures may look impressive by global standards. For the sixth year running return to Afghanistan has been the highest in the world. But they have decreased sharply in recent years. At the same time, the numbers of Afghans leaving the country, mostly to find employment, are also rising notably.

There are many factors in Afghanistan which have slowed repatriation - insecurity, limited absorption capacity, food insecurity, the absence of land, shelter, education, health and above all employment. They all combine to make a return to the huge repatriation figures of 2002-2005 unlikely.

Indeed, the challenges ahead will be more complex. The profile and demography of the refugee population in countries of asylum has changed. The majority now live in cities. Half have been born outside their parent's homeland. Return to a remote village and an unknown way of life is unlikely for the younger generation. Long periods in exile have eroded traditional networks. Exposure to higher living standards brings new expectations and desires.

To maintain the momentum of repatriation and sustain reintegration will require a different way of working. UNHCR is a humanitarian agency. We are not equipped technically or financially to address the range of economic and social issues now shaping the repatriation context. They need to be tackled by the kind of vision, approaches, programmes, and resources laid out in the Afghanistan National Development Strategy.

The primary role of UNHCR will remain to support the initial return phase. We will continue to work closely with our counterparts in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan to ensure that return takes place voluntarily, in safety and in dignity. Not just - I wish to underline - because we are dogmatic in our support of a legal principle. But because the right to choose freely, in an informed manner, is the best and most practical guarantee of sustainable return. After all, transforming settled refugees in one country into displaced persons in their homeland is surely in no one's interest, as it is in no one's interest to transform the refugees of today into the irregular migrants of tomorrow.

Our engagement with the voluntary repatriation programme, and with monitoring closely the situation of returnees, will remain the cornerstones of our work here. But we have a wider responsibility inasmuch as refugee and other forms of population movements may represent a source of tension in the region. We fully intend to use our knowledge and experience to contribute to ensuring dialogue and promoting cooperation on these questions. It is vital, in my view, that we focus our efforts on the need for solutions. We know from past experience that neglecting them will only create more problems over time.

UNHCR understands the desire by the neighbouring countries to see an increase in repatriation figures and significant progress in support for sustainable reintegration. UNHCR also recognizes the challenging operational environment in Afghanistan. Most of all, we sympathise with the ambitions, hopes and concerns of refugees as they assess the prospects for return. It is my sincere hope that we can find convergence among these sentiments in the best interests of those we are all seeking to assist.

That is the raison d'être for the Afghan National Development sector strategy for Refugees, Returnees and IDPs and I commend the Government for it. The strategy sets out a comprehensive and well grounded vision of the tasks ahead over the next five years. And, may I say, it sets a benchmark for what UNHCR has always sought to promote in post conflict situations - the mainstreaming of refugee reintegration into national development programmes. It has long been our view that sustainable reintegration in both rural and urban areas can only be achieved by investments in many sectors - agriculture, livelihoods, land distribution and housing, education and training, water and sanitation. The challenge for us all is to bridge the gap between a strategy and effective action.

We need to ensure that programme design and resource allocation can take full account of repatriation patterns. These can be very complex and often unpredictable. Most returnees do go back to their place of origin. But many later move to where they can find employment, often in cities.

Worldwide, some 50% of the global population now lives in urban areas. In Iran some 98% of Afghan refugees live in urban areas. In Pakistan the statistic is 55%. Overall, some 40% of returnees have gone back to cities and towns where the economy has grown most appreciably. This is a normal development, but it must be factored into future planning processes.

In that context, I am looking forward to the presentation on both the ANDS Sector Strategy and the costing exercise. The former has outlined the critical challenges for policy and implementation. The latter attempts the ambitious but important task of providing detailed figures for the reintegration challenge.

At the successful Paris Conference in June this year over 20 billion US dollars were pledged. I hope that through the presentations you will hear today, the importance of taking the returnee population into planning and budgeting processes will be apparent. From UNHCR's perspective, even more important, will be to ensure that the sectors, provinces, and districts likely to be affected by returning Afghans will be taken into account when allocating resources.

The many national programmes and projects contained in the ANDS have an important contribution to make. I am convinced that they can be ever more effective supporters of the reintegration process, both directly and indirectly. There will certainly be much follow up work required for this. I look forward to seeing how this process advances in future.

We are very conscious that return must be made sustainable. It is already evident that some returning Afghans have opted to look for employment outside Afghanistan. The economic pressures that give rise to labour migration are clear. Equally, the concerns of countries within the region and beyond over the increase in irregular movements are understandable.

From our perspective, ensuring sustainable refugee return and addressing irregular migration have at least one solution in common - an improvement in the overall economic environment and in employment opportunities. Progress in these areas will surely encourage more Afghans to return and provide reasons for others not to leave.

The generation of economic growth is not a task accomplished only by the implementation of strategies like ANDS. It is above all else dependent on the industry and determination of the Afghan people. UNHCR is often questioned about the burden imposed both by returnees and refugees. It is important to note that they too have made important economic contributions to their host countries in exile and to the reinvigoration of Afghanistan's economy.

I want here to recall once more the role of the neighbouring host countries have played over all these years. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Iran and Pakistan. They continue to host significant refugee populations within their borders and deserve recognition and support from us all. If most Afghans in host countries are largely self-sufficient by now, changing economic circumstances risk adding to the numbers of those already poor and marginalised. Our approach must be intelligent, far-sighted and assist both refugees and host communities alike.


In meeting the challenges ahead, steady resolve and solidarity will be required. Afghanistan has many challenges to face. With sustained and effective commitment from the Afghan government and active solidarity from the international community, I am convinced that these can be overcome. It is my sincere hope that the resolution of the long standing refugee situation in the region will be among those challenges that we can resolve in the years to come.

Mr. Co-Chairman, Ministers, Friends,

In UNHCR you will find as reliable a partner today as we were when we first embarked on our long cooperation on the Afghanistan situation. Circumstances have evolved greatly and certainly require new approaches. But our commitment to finding solutions and to standing shoulder to shoulder with the people of this country remains unchanged.

I look forward to a productive and fruitful discussion.

Thank you.