High Commissioner ends South Asia mission
High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers left Islamabad this morning, ending a week-long mission to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. It was his sixth visit to the region since taking office in January 2001. Before leaving, Mr. Lubbers announced that UNHCR's top priority is to close by the beginning of September all of Pakistan's "new" refugee camps opened to host Afghans who fled the post-9/11 war in 2001. The "new" camps, which were located at government request in areas close to the Afghan border where security has been a continual concern, shelter about 200,000 people who will be offered assistance to return to Afghanistan. The High Commissioner said there was a danger that forces opposed to the current government in Afghanistan - both Taliban and al Qaida - could find sanctuary and even recruit in camps near the border.
The removal of the camps has already started with the closure of the Shalman camp in the Khyber Pass, which we announced in March. While the closures underscore security concerns in border areas of Pakistan, they also reflect what the High Commissioner said were increasing opportunities for Afghans to return to their homeland. He said that while security concerns persist in some areas of Afghanistan, there were increased opportunities in others. The camp closure announcement followed the High Commissioner's meetings with President Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali and various Cabinet ministers.
In addition to those Afghans residing in the new camps, an estimated 1 million are living in hundreds of old settlements established before 2001. An unknown number of Afghans also live elsewhere in Pakistan.
Nearly 2 million refugees have returned from Pakistan since the start of the UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme in March 2002. About 60,000 have returned since the 2004 operation began less than seven weeks ago. UNHCR is repatriating Afghans from Pakistan under a tripartite agreement with the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan that runs until March 2006.
Mr. Lubbers said he told Pakistani officials that he hoped that after the expiry of the repatriation agreement, the remaining Afghans in Pakistan might be accommodated under other arrangements, such as work permits. He said this would be a "win-win" solution by providing economic benefits for both countries. As the situation normalises, the benefits of economic integration will increase.
In all, UNHCR expects about a million Afghans to return home this year, mostly refugees in Pakistan and Iran, but also thousands of additional refugees residing in other states, plus up to 100,000 internally displaced persons. In all, some 3 million Afghans, both former refugees and internally displaced persons, have returned to their homes in just over two years.