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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Afghan Support Group Meeting, Berlin, 5 December 2001

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Afghan Support Group Meeting, Berlin, 5 December 2001

5 December 2001
1. Voluntary return of refugees2. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)3. Emergency preparedness4. Support to refugees in countries of asylum

(Check against delivery)

Minister Fischer,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the German Government for hosting this meeting. I would also like to congratulate Norway, which will take over the Chair of the Afghan Support Group in January. I look forward to working closely with Norway next year.

The agreement reached this morning on a new interim government for Afghanistan is indeed an important and historic milestone for the country. I would like congratulate all the Afghans represented at the meeting near Bonn for the firm resolve that they have shown to putting Afghanistan back on the road to peace, and for the commitment that they have shown in working together with the United Nations team led by Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi. I am particularly pleased that two women have been named to senior posts. I hope that women will play a key role in building a new, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan.

The events of the last few weeks and the last few hours have considerably modified the military and political landscape in Afghanistan. It is too early to be sure of how soon peace will be restored to the whole country, so further population displacement and refugee outflows cannot yet be ruled out. But the rapid progress which is being made in building peace in the country requires fast, innovative approaches. We must ensure that new opportunities are seized immediately by the international community to ensure the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country, and to facilitate reconciliation efforts. I hope that we are also seeing the beginning of a process that will eventually enable millions of Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries to return to their homes.

Keeping in mind the concerns of all the countries in the region, I have informed Mr. Kofi Annan, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi and other colleagues in the UN that UNHCR is ready to maintain its "two-pronged" approach, focusing both on assistance inside Afghanistan and on the needs of refugees in neighbouring countries.

We have recently finalized a new Plan of Action to cover the period from now until the end of June 2002. The plan has the following four objectives:

1. Voluntary return of refugees

To prepare for the resumption of regional activities aimed at facilitating the voluntary return of refugees to their homes. This will include the identification and promotion of safe environments for return. As and when appropriate, it will also entail the provision of support to returnees and local communities in areas of return.

2. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

To provide protection and solutions-oriented assistance to internally displaced people and other vulnerable groups inside Afghanistan in support of the UN inter-agency framework.

3. Emergency preparedness

To maintain an adequate regional emergency preparedness capacity.

4. Support to refugees in countries of asylum

To continue to provide protection and solutions-oriented assistance to refugees in countries of asylum. This includes both refugees who were in these countries before September 11th, and new arrivals.

An estimated 900,000 beneficiaries are covered by the Plan of Action. This includes some 500,000 IDPs and returnees in Afghanistan, up to 300,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan, up to 80,000 Afghan refugees in Iran, and up to 20,000 Afghan refugees in the Central Asian republics. These figures do not factor in the assistance that was being provided before September 11th both within Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries, which is covered by our existing Annual Programme budget.

Concerning immediate needs inside Afghanistan, we are continuing to provide emergency assistance in places where the security situation enables us to operate. For example, our team in Kabul has recently distributed winter kits for over 10,000 people, many of whose homes were destroyed and who were displaced during the fighting. These winter kits include stoves for cooking and heating, plastic sheeting, charcoal, blankets, sweaters and quilts. We are also working together with 35 local Afghan NGOs to assess the needs of displaced people in the area around Kabul. We will continue to distribute winter kits to the most vulnerable.

Concerning our involvement with IDPs in Afghanistan, UNHCR is fully committed to participating in an inter-agency effort. While UNHCR's primary focus in Afghanistan will be on the return and reintegration of refugees, we have informed the UN Humanitarian Coordinator that we are ready to focus on "cross-cutting" issues that relate to both refugees and IDPs. In this context, we are willing to assist in addressing the protection concerns of both IDPs and refugees throughout the country. In the North and Western regions, the response to the IDP crisis was largely undertaken by other actors prior to the events of September 11th. Meanwhile, in other geographical areas, UNHCR is willing to take on a more direct operational responsibility. We are currently in discussions with UNOCHA and other agencies with a view to focusing on providing assistance to IDPs in specific areas - possibly the South, East and Central regions of Afghanistan.

Assistance to IDPs will be community-based, with an emphasis on strengthening capacities of host communities. The establishment of camps will be discouraged. Where they are necessary, efforts will be made to ensure that settlements are kept small. This will diminish pull-factors to certain locations. UNHCR will, wherever possible, provide assistance through partners, with a view to strengthening and increasing existing links with international and local NGOs.

Until now, UNHCR has not been involved in providing assistance to IDPs in camp sites located near to the borders with Pakistan and Iran. This is because the four conditions that we laid down for providing such assistance have not been fulfilled. These are:

  • IDPs and other vulnerable civilians will be assisted in areas where they are not exposed to insecurity;
  • Humanitarian staff must have safe and unhindered access to beneficiaries;
  • Sites must be suitable for the provision of assistance according to basic minimum standards;
  • Humanitarian staff must have reliable interlocutors from within the authority in control of the area, who will respect the civilian and humanitarian character of the sites and will ensure that the assistance reaches the intended beneficiaries.

UNHCR activities in support of IDPs in Afghanistan will continue to be carried out only in areas where these four conditions are fulfilled.

Concerning the voluntary return of refugees, we are in the process of drawing up a comprehensive multi-year repatriation and reintegration plan. This will be shared with you in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, our Plan of Action for the period until June 2002 focuses mainly on building up our preparedness for large-scale returns, and on assisting those who choose to return spontaneously over the coming months. As you know, thousands of IDPs have already returned to their homes in recent days in Kabul and other places. Refugees are also continuing to return, particularly from Iran, though the numbers remain small in comparison with the total numbers involved.

Even before 11th September, Afghans constituted the largest refugee population in the world, with over 3.5 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran alone, and many more spread out in some 70 countries from Europe to Australia and the United States. Many of them were born outside Afghanistan and have never seen their country, while many others have lived in exile for almost all their lives. We need to ensure that the necessary conditions are created to allow these refugees to return.

We have witnessed large-scale refugee returns to Afghanistan before. Indeed, since 1988 UNHCR has - together with its partners - facilitated the return of over 4.5 million refugees. But the obstacles to return should not be under-estimated. After so many years of conflict, the homes of many of the refugees have been totally destroyed and the land which they lived on and farmed is littered with landmines. Much of the infrastructure, including many of the roads, schools, hospitals and irrigation systems, have been destroyed. It will be a long process.

Preparedness for refugee return begins in the countries of asylum. Together with governments in the region and other partners, UNHCR will design and seek to implement a harmonized approach to repatriation assistance. We will also examine ways of assisting countries which have been hosting large refugee populations for many years to repair any damage which has been caused to their environment. We are also committed to assisting any new arrivals in neighbouring countries, and we appeal to donors to support these efforts. Depending on conditions in Afghanistan, UNHCR will also consider entering into agreements with the Afghan authorities and with governments of asylum countries, to formally promote voluntary return. This will be coordinated closely within the overall UN inter-agency framework.

Rebuilding the country will be a daunting task, but this time the international community must not turn its back on the Afghan people, as it has done before. We must invest heavily in finding durable solutions for the millions of refugees and internally displaced Afghans, for to invest in them is to invest in the future peace and stability of the region.

The return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their places of origin could have a significant impact on stabilization, as well as on the rehabilitation and economic recovery of Afghanistan. Refugees and IDPs represent approximately one fifth of the Afghan population, and their potential productive capacity should not be underestimated. These people are not simply the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid; they are important potential contributors to development.

UNHCR will ensure strong co-ordination with other actors to promote longer-term recovery and reconstruction. We are ready to support and actively participate in the efforts initiated by Mr. Kenzo Oshima and Mr. Mark Malloch-Brown to ensure a smooth transition from relief to development. As requested by Mr. Malloch-Brown, we will work closely with the UN Development Group (UNDG) and other development actors in this exercise, which is so important for ensuring sustainable refugee returns. We will work in close cooperation with all our partners, including in particular UNOCHA, UNDP, UNICEF, WHO and WFP, as well as international organizations such as ICRC and IOM, and NGOs.

Finally, a few words about fund-raising. It is clear that the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Afghanistan, the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes, and reconciliation of people who were at war for so many years, will take time. Bearing this in mind, and taking into consideration the call from Mr. Kofi Annan and Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi for a "new approach" that enables a seamless transition from relief to transition to development, I would like to propose that for our funding purposes we give consideration to the possibility of a "multi-year" repatriation and reintegration plan for Afghanistan.

Thank you.