By Charles Recknagel and William Samii
The head of the UN refugee agency this month visited Iran and Pakistan as part of a new effort to repatriate millions of Afghan refugees voluntarily. The UN says the solution for the refugees is to create opportunities for them in Afghanistan. But critics say Afghanistan -- wracked by drought and war -- is still not a safe destination. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the repatriation effort in part 1 of a two-part series.
Prague, 28 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata this month made a regional tour to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran to urge international support for returning the Afghan refugees home.
During her visits, Pakistani and Iranian officials repeated long-standing complaints that the combined total of some 2.6 million Afghan refugees in their countries puts an intolerable strain on their social and economic structures.
At the same time, Ogata met with officials of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to seek their support for repatriation efforts. The movement said it welcomed refugees back but also raised long-standing demands that the UN recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's government and lift economic sanctions against it.
The UN refugee chief ended her tour by calling on the international community to solve the region's refugee problem by rebuilding infrastructure in Afghanistan and encouraging those who left to return voluntarily. She told reporters before leaving Tehran for Geneva: "The only major means of solution is repatriation."
Ogata's trip was part of a continuing drive by the UN's refugee agency -- the UNHCR -- to switch the focus for solving the problems of Afghan refugees from the region's ever more restive host countries to Afghanistan itself.
So far, that drive has scored some successes. The UNHCR says that since April 100,000 Afghans have repatriated from Iran under a UN-Tehran agreement offering refugees the chance to seek permanent asylum or receive money to return to Afghanistan. During the same period, about 80,000 refugees in Pakistan have taken financial incentives to return home .
But the repatriation drive also has created a growing debate over how well it really solves the refugees' plight. Critics say that while Tehran and Islamabad back it, and the Taliban at least welcomes the refugees' return as a negotiating tool with the UN, Afghanistan itself is not a safe destination.
The country is suffering its worst drought in 30 years and fighting continues in northern areas between the Taliban and an opposition alliance. In addition, throughout the 90 percent of Afghanistan which the Taliban controls, there is severe curtailment of women's and other human rights.
RFE/RL recently spoke with both UN officials and critics of the program to learn how the refugee repatriation program is going.
Our correspondent began by talking with Yusef Hassan, the UNHCR's spokesman for the region who is based in Islamabad. Hassan said that the UN agency is satisfied that the program is the only solution for both the host countries, which are beset by economic problems.
"There are difficulties in the host countries. Both in Iran and Pakistan, there are considerable economic problems in those countries. And these countries have hosted these refugees for a very long time. And there also is a lot of frustration with the fact that there isn't any significant progress towards reconciliation in Afghanistan."
Iran's immigrant affairs department says that providing for the officially registered 1.4 million Afghan refugees there costs about $1 billion annually. Most of the Afghans in Iran do not live in refugee camps but take jobs as day laborers. Many analysts believe up to another million unregistered Afghans are also in the country.
But in recent years work of all kinds has become harder to find as Iran struggles with double-digit inflation and unemployment rates. Complaints that refugees take Iranians' jobs have become more frequent. So have reports of round-ups and deportations of Afghans who do not have work permits.
Iran considers Afghans who fled their country between the 1979 Soviet invasion and the Soviet pullout as refugees. But it considers later arrivals -- who have fled inter-factional conflicts -- as illegal immigrants following a traditional pattern of job migration between the countries.
Still, if Afghans feel an increased pressures to go, Hassan says this year's UN accord with Tehran has assured that any refugees who truly fear repatriation can remain in Iran. Hassan:
"A lot of the refugees in Iran are seeing this growing pressure for them to leave but under no circumstances have we seen pressure on people who genuinely desire protection. And I think we are in agreement with the Iranian government that those who fear returning back and have fled their country for political reasons would continue to enjoy protection in Iran."
Hassan said that under the accord Tehran has reviewed some 30,000 family asylum cases and that 27 percent of those have been accepted. Another 25 percent of the cases are still pending, while the rest have been rejected. The UNHCR and Iran agreed during Ogata's visit to extend the repatriation-or-asylum program for another three months.
In Pakistan, most of the 1.2 million refugees still live in refugee camps along the Afghan border, subsidized by Pakistani and international aid. There the greatest pressure to leave is reported to be financial, with many refugees saying the aid they receive is too little to support them.
Both Pakistan and Iran have requested more help from the international community to cope with their refugee populations. But UN officials say prospects for any new aid programs are uncertain unless they are located in Afghanistan. Hassan:
"There is a donor apathy. This a long drawn-out refugee situation and there are a lot of difficulties in convincing donors to continue to support [programs in the host countries]. But I think for us return to Afghanistan is a durable solution because Afghanistan is a home country and the focus should be to assist the people of Afghanistan inside Afghanistan. Because it's a country that has been devastated by over 20 years of conflict and there is really a need to invest in Afghanistan so that these people can go back to their country and participate in the process of reconciliation and reconstruction."
As one measure of donor fatigue, the UNHCR asked for $7.5 million for its Afghan refugee programs this year but is reported to have received just 2 million.
UN officials say they now hope that by changing the focus to programs inside Afghanistan they can again galvanize international financial support for Afghan refugees. But it remains to be seen whether the world's donors -- almost all at odds with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban -- can be convinced. We will look at criticisms of the repatriation effort in the second part of this series.