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Afghanistan: UN Says Most Of Country Safe For Refugees' Return

  • Ahto Lobjakas --> An Afghan refugee in Pakistan (file photo) The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ruud Lubbers, said today he believes most of Afghanistan is safe enough for the return of some 3 million Afghan refugees who remain in Pakistan and Iran. Lubbers was speaking after a conference in Brussels that brought together Afghan, Iranian, and Pakistani officials, as well as representatives of countries funding aid efforts in the region. Officials from the European Union -- which constitutes one of the largest donors -- also noted marked improvements in the security situation in Afghanistan. They indicated they will start phasing out humanitarian relief efforts and will instead focus increasingly on the reconstruction of the country.

Brussels, 16 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Brussels conference was organized by the UNHCR and the European Commission to look at progress in the repatriation of Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan.

Lubbers said he believes that just three years after the fall of the Taliban, it is now safe for most Afghan refugees to return home.

"We are still not 100 percent there, but to a large part, Afghanistan is becoming safe enough to return to," he said. "We have seen last year, again, substantial repatriation. In round [figures], 300,000 to 600,000 from Iran, 300,000 from [Pakistan]. It adds up to three million people [since the fall of the Taliban regime].”

UNHCR figures show a proportional fall in the number of Afghan asylum seekers in the West.

Lubbers said improving conditions in Afghanistan will allow the international community to gradually shift from shorter-term humanitarian assistance to long-term development aid.

This, he said, should focus on the reintegration of returnees and the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Afghanistan.

The UNHCR chief added, however, that he had asked international donors to continue providing humanitarian relief funds for returning refugees for at least two more years.

Herve Jouanjean, a senior official at the European Commission, indicated the EU will agree to the proposal.
"As we see it, the return of refugees from Pakistan and Iran is continuing and [that] is good news, because it shows that there is clearly a strong [attraction] to go back to Afghanistan." -- Herve Jouanjean, European Commission

"As we see it, the return of refugees from Pakistan and Iran is continuing and [that] is good news, because it shows that there is clearly a strong [attraction] to go back to Afghanistan," he said. "Of course, it cannot be done overnight, and clearly [after] discussions with the UNHCR and the donor community, it appears that we intend to continue supporting the process of refugee return for a couple of years."

Ultimately, however, EU humanitarian relief assistance for Afghanistan will be phased out. Jouanjean said such funds have dropped from a total of 54 million euros in 2003 to 20 million euros this year.

Instead, Afghanistan can draw aid from an internationally financed reconstruction program, currently budgeted for the years 2002-2006, to which the EU contributed 1 billion euros.

Jouanjean said a key EU concern is to ensure that the return of refugees is sustainable. For this, he said, living conditions in Afghanistan must improve.

He said the EU is focusing mainly on improving the availability of basic services, as well as creating real economic opportunities in rural areas.

Jouanjean added the economic rehabilitation of rural areas is particularly important in fighting the drugs trade. The main challenge is to ensure farming communities have alternative livelihoods.

Lubbers agreed, saying productive agriculture must be revived in order to fight poppy cultivation.

"Key in reducing poppy [cultivation] is developing productive agriculture in Afghanistan," he said. "We are just now at the point that this is starting. We are blessed with rains and snow this winter, so this is the beginning of a good year for agriculture. To make full profit of that, we need to rehabilitate, reconstruct the old irrigation systems which were almost all destroyed there. Managing water in Afghanistan means creating a productive Afghanistan. Eighty percent [of the livelihoods in] Afghanistan is agriculture, so the key to success is very much in the countryside."

The Brussels conference also sought to promote cross-border cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbors. Lubbers said the refugee problem cannot be resolved by repatriation alone. Donors must also support Pakistan and Iran to allow some of the refugees to stay in those countries permanently.

Of the 3 million Afghan refugees remaining in those countries, Iran accounts for 1 million, Pakistan for roughly 2 million -- half of whom live in refugee camps.

Lubbers said he hopes 1 million Afghans will return home from Iran and Pakistan over the next two years.

But for the substantial numbers of displaced Afghans who may want to stay in their adopted countries, Lubbers said the international community must find ways to provide aid and support health care and education.

He said Pakistan can expect development assistance to help it rehabilitate the camps that may close, and transform others into permanent settlements.