Afghanistan + 2 more

Afghanistan: Interview with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers

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ISLAMABAD, 6 March (IRIN) - With the possibility of another huge refugee crisis in the making in and around Iraq, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers has visited Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to oversee the largest ongoing repatriation effort in decades. In an interview with IRIN in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, Lubbers predicted that despite the uncertainties, hundreds of thousands of Afghans would return home in 2003.
QUESTION: What are your planning figures for next year and do you have enough funding available?

ANSWER: The planning figures from Pakistan are 600,000 and the total we are speaking about is one and a half million. We have a funding problem at the moment, which is a coming together of two things. Interest diminishes year after year, but on the other hand we had quite reassuring words still in December in the Afghan Support Group conference in Oslo. However, I am not too pessimistic.

The other problem we have is that of Iraq. Because of Iraq, almost all [donor] capitals are holding back with a wait-and-see attitude.

Q: In terms of comparison, over the past year, UNHCR has assisted well over one million Afghans to return to their homeland from Pakistan, while only around 265,000 were assisted from Iran. How do you account for this difference?

A: The repatriation from Iran started late in April last year. Together with the spontaneous returns, we will have around 400,000 returnees from Iran in the first year. Hopefully, a bit more people will return next year, not in the millions, but certainly more than 400,000. I think that will double.

The increased returns from Pakistan has to do more with the fact that there are more Afghans here without any employment and other difficult circumstances in comparison to Iran, where they have access to employment, health care and other services.

Q: There are media reports that some Afghan refugees in Europe are in effect being forcibly ejected back to a country that remains largely unable to support them. What's your reaction to that?

A: We have tripartite agreements with a number of countries now - France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, as well as the European Commission. The theme here is that those Afghans who have fled in the past and have already received refugee status in Europe can stay. There are only a very limited number who are in a pipeline, and they have come to the borders, sometimes as a result of a painful process through human traffickers.

Then the governments in Europe say: Can you solve this? Can they go back to their country? As you cannot say that all can go back and you cannot also say that all can stay, we have to look at specific cases, and the people returning are being given quite generous packages and most people accept them.

Q: In the event of a possible US-led strike on Iraq, there is growing speculation that there could be a shifting of humanitarian attention away from Afghanistan and onto Iraq. How concerned are you about that and how would you address that?

A: At least temporarily I see that shift and I am concerned. The only thing I can do is to address the donor community and ask them to support the process here now. There is good reason for that because the whole Iraq thing is about security. If you want to go for security in this part of the world, you [had] better go about the sustainable return process in Afghanistan.

Otherwise, you run the risk of destabilisation again with consequences for security. I think that argument should be vocalised very strongly. That can help in getting the funding for Afghanistan.

Q: You recently met the return commission in northern Afghanistan. What commitments did they give the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in ensuring the safe return of refugees - ethnic Pashtuns in particular?

A: I went to Mazar-e Sharif, I sat down with the Return Commission, including those who exert leadership there, with [Gen Rashid] Dostum, with [Gen] Ata, who have influence there. This is important because the problem there is about the behaviour of the local commanders. Sometimes the local commanders still do not behave.

They don't give the land to those who are fleeing, sometimes they burden the people with certain taxes or draft them for certain military services. These are the sorts of things that shouldn't happen but sometimes still happen.

But with the [return] commission now we have a systematic mechanism, as they have signed the agreement to go after such issues and to diminish such practices. The commission or its working group will go to the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps and also to Pakistan to inform Pashtuns about what is really happening, about what the improvements are, and if they still have concerns - and they can be very specific about certain villages - they can look into the matter and find a solution. I think this is the beginning of the return of Pashtuns.

Q: How is the UNHCR responding to the thousands of Afghans stranded at the waiting area camp in the southwestern Pakistani town of Chaman bordering Afghanistan, and related to that is the controversial Zhare Dasht camp in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, where people from Chaman were moved and which is said to be lacking in job opportunities and other services?

A: Let's start with Chaman. I think that the waiting area camp at Chaman has to be ended. It's understandable that people were fleeing [during the war]. They wanted to go to Pakistan. Soon Pakistan closed the border and people are still in that waiting zone.

We are assisting them but from now on we will give them an additional incentive package to make a choice to return. They can go back to Spin Buldak on just the other side of the border - or to the much better new camp in Zhare Dasht.

At the site of the new Zhare Dasht camp, I have seen mine clearance myself there. So you can say that it's risky today and it's not a good solution for the future. But it's temporary. When people still hesitate about going to their places of origin or villages such as those in northern Afghanistan, then it's better to leave the waiting zone and to go to Zhare Dasht. Then speak with the Return Commission and find security to go to their villages. We are going to end the waiting zone. I think six months from now we will not be able to continue this any more.

Q: Given the huge upheavals in Afghan society over the past two decades, do you see reintegration actually working at a community level?

A: Yes, it's still slow, but it has started in the country. There is a lot of working together and one has to learn a lot. After decades, it's not that easy to live together. Coexistence is a dream still, but it's possible and it's starting. The country is more relaxed. If you go around people are calm. They see opportunities and they understand that living together might be of profit to everybody.

Q: Given that some 1.8 million returnees to Afghanistan last year are to a large degree worse off now than when in Pakistan, how is this fact going to impact UNHCR's return programme this spring?

A: The first year was a sphere of alleluia on the one hand and it was the easy cases who came to the conclusion that their families should go. There were specific cases, such as that of the Nasirbagh refugee camp [near the northwestern city of Peshawar]. People there knew that the camp would close soon. Now the second year, it's not about the big numbers going automatically, it has to be more specific. So we have to see what the hesitations are, diminish the hesitations and then people will return. There will be not as much as last year. But still hundreds of thousands are expected to go.

We have two shifts in emphasis. Firstly in Afghanistan, it is now more about reintegration. Here we are checking on the people's concerns and then informing them and finding solutions. This is now under the tripartite agreement with the government of Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR, which has a time frame of three years. It's not just a time frame of three years of wait and see - it's investing a lot, finding the problems and solutions for them.

Q: You met Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf. Did you discuss the harassment of Afghan refugees here and also Islamabad's concerns about being burdened by such a massive refugee population for so long?

A: The atmosphere here has changed. Over the years, whenever I was here, I used to hear a lot about the impossible burden for Pakistan. Now I hear words of thanks for the successful repatriation and an encouragement for partnership to go for the tripartite agreement, which is three years of management of migration.

We didn't speak too much about things that are not going well. Of course, there are some incidents, but basically we are motivated to find a way forward by which those Afghans who have no future in Pakistan will return to Afghanistan.

[ENDS]

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