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Lubbers warns world not to forget Afghanistan amid Iraq crisis

Lubbers warns world not to forget Afghanistan amid Iraq crisis

Stressing the need to rebuild Afghanistan, UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers has urged donors not to get sidetracked by Iraq. Afghan stability is a vital issue, he said, calling on governments to deliver on their pledges to sustain Afghan return and reintegration this year.
4 March 2003
A boy and his goats wander in the ruins left by the repatriation of about a third of the Afghan refugees from Shamshatoo camp near Peshawar.

ISLAMABAD, March 4 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers has warned the international community not to neglect the rebuilding of Afghanistan as the world's focus switches to a potential conflict in Iraq, terming Afghan stability a vital security issue.

Lubbers, on a regional tour of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, appealed on Tuesday for continued aid as UNHCR begins a three-year programme of repatriation from Pakistan seen as central to a final resolution of the decades-old Afghan refugee problem.

"I am really convinced that, as one says that the topic in Iraq is about security in this world, it would be a fatal mistake to neglect the need to build a peaceful Afghanistan," the UNHCR chief told a news conference in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

"That is what the international community promised in Tokyo," he said, referring to the aid conference a year ago in support of the new Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai. "That is what Pakistan promised too in its own pledge. This is now all a question of delivery."

UNHCR has so far received only about $25 million of the $195 million in funds requested to support its Afghan regional programme in 2003. Lubbers said he would be writing to donor governments after his tour to ask them to speed up delivery on pledges.

"It took time last year, but I have to register gratefully that we were fully funded," he said. "Now you ask me about this year, I am much more concerned. I fear that Iraq diverts attention. This is a problem."

The High Commissioner said he feared donors were waiting to see what happens in Iraq before making commitments to Afghanistan. He added that he believed a peaceful solution could still be found in Iraq.

"We have no time to lose. We have a very good programme [for Afghanistan], so I call from here to donors to fund that programme and to make the repatriation of refugees to Afghanistan and sustainable re-integration there a success," he said.

Despite his concerns about funding, the refugee agency chief said he was optimistic about the rebuilding of Afghanistan and an end to the Afghan refugee problem that had begun with the 1979 Soviet invasion. At least four million Afghans remain outside their country, in Iran and Pakistan.

Last year, the UN refugee agency assisted nearly 1.6 million Afghans to return home from Pakistan and another 262,000 from Iran. The planning figures for this year are 600,000 returns from both of the neighbouring countries.

Lubbers dismissed charges that UNHCR had encouraged too many refugees to return to Afghanistan in 2002, overwhelming Afghan absorption capacity. He noted that refugees had spontaneously flooded the agency's offices seeking return assistance - in numbers that far exceeded UN expectations - but only a few subsequently returned to Pakistan.

"We think that after this very successful year, we still have three years and the job is done," he said, outlining a methodical approach that he hopes will see the final year of assisted voluntary repatriation in 2005.

Under the plan, which is at the core of a proposed tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the three years of repatriation will be followed by a decision on the status of the residual Afghan population. Lubbers invited ministers from Afghanistan and Pakistan to join him at a conference in Brussels on March 17 to sign the proposed framework for resolving the Afghan refugee problem.

"It's not just three years waiting, it's three years working - month after month we have to produce certain results," said the High Commissioner. "And then at some point we have to see what is still remaining. There are of course many Afghans who are absolutely integrated in the society, they are not a problem. It is the non-integrated people who are a burden."

After last year's large repatriation, Lubbers said the lower numbers expected this year - and a remaining refugee population that has indicated less enthusiasm to return - required a shift in strategy. UNHCR is focusing on helping repatriation in 2003 from the more than 200 refugee camps in Pakistan.

Lubbers acknowledged that the number of returnees would rise only if there were both continued improvement in Afghanistan, where he saw efforts to improve security in the north of the country before flying to Pakistan, and a removal of obstacles to repatriation cited by refugees. In a recent UNHCR survey, refugees cited the lack of security, shelter and jobs in Afghanistan as reasons to delay returning.

"Although I speak about a more gradual development in numbers, at the same time [we will be] a little bit more assertive," Lubbers told reporters after talks with Pakistani leaders about the refugee programme. In 2002, almost four times the expected number of refugees swamped repatriation centres, drawn more by the desire to return than the modest transportation and resettlement assistance provided.

"Now we will go more into the reasons why people still do not move ... and try to solve the reasons and then to get the person moving," he said.

Lubbers spoke after meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. In contrast to tensions during the first of his three visits to Pakistan, the UNHCR chief reported a very warm reception this time. He said the combination of last year's successful start to repatriation and the prospect of ending the 23-year-old Afghan refugee problem meant that UNHCR and Pakistan were now working closely for a smooth repatriation.