Afghanistan + 2 more

Afghanistan: Press briefing by Adrian Edwards, UNAMA Spokesman, with Salvatore Lombardo, UNHCR Representative 5 Jun 2007

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News and Press Release
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Spokesperson: Good morning everyone and welcome to today's press conference. Today's focus is refugee affairs and I will hand over to Salvatore Lombardo [United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Afghanistan] in a few moments. Before I do, I would like to bring your attention to a number of issues from the UN family here in Afghanistan.

UNICEF - PREVENTING DISEASES AND IMMUNISING CHILDREN

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that over 50,000 children under the age of five die every year in Afghanistan as a result of diarrhoeal diseases.

UNICEF has provided assistance for diarrhoeal disease control and whooping cough outbreaks in the south and east over the last few weeks. And to control outbreaks of diarrhoeal and other diseases during the summer season, UNICEF has provided medicine to provincial hospitals across the southern region. This will benefit over 3,000 people.

In response to the recent whopping cough outbreak in Dai Kundi, UNICEF assisted the provincial department of health with antibiotics.

UNICEF has also been involved with immunisation campaigns for measles and tetanus. These campaigns are targeting nearly three million children under the age of five and over three and half million women. They have begun in twelve provinces in the central and northern regions of Afghanistan.

IOM - SCHOOLS AND HEALTH CLINICS

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has over the last week hit an important target on both health and education - directly benefiting the people of Afghanistan. They have built or refurbished five hundred schools and clinics in twenty-three provinces across the country since May 2004.

The schools and clinics have all been handed to the Ministries of Education and Public Health. Of the five hundred - 327 are schools and 173 are health facilities.

The clinics are equipped with rooms for delivery, examination, vaccinations and a pharmacy. Most of the schools cater for both boys and girls in shifts while some are dedicated specifically to girls' education.

Currently two more schools are under construction and they are expected to be completed by the end of this month.

UNMACA - MINE RISK EDUCATION FOR AFGHAN DEPORTEES FROM IRAN

The United Nations Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan (UNMACA) is providing mine risk education to Afghans who have returned from Iran over the past few weeks.

Mine risk education is crucial for these newly returned Afghans. Thirty-two out of the thirty-four Afghan provinces are still contaminated by mines and unexploded ordnance and an average of two Afghans fall victim to these devices every day.

Mine risk education teams from the Afghan Red Crescent Society and others are being deployed to run sessions for returnees at the Zaranj and Islam Qala border points and also in Farah. Mine risk education posters will also be placed in prominent sites in these areas.

UNMACA will also broadcast frequent messages in Farah through local radio networks to target returnees and raise their awareness of mines and unexploded ordnance.

The Mine risk education programme is also working with the BBC and Afghan Education Projects to incorporate mine risk education into the BBC's programme - "New Home New Life" which is broadcast several times a week on the World Service in both Pashto and Dari.

WFP - FIVE NEW SCHOOLS IN GHOR

The World Food Programme (WFP) in Herat has now completed the construction of five schools in Ghor province, with funding from the Lithuanian provincial reconstruction team.

Construction started in October and in coordination with the education authorities was completed on 25 May in Chaghcharan, Saghar and Tulak districts.

Each school comprises six classroom blocks and two toilet units, and will accommodate and provide education for over two hundred and fifty students in two shifts.

For each school, over one hundred labourers worked and received wheat, oil and pulses as food incentives under WFP's food-for-work activities.

UNESCO - INTERNET CAFÉ IN MAIMANA

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has opened an internet café in Maimana in partnership with local radio station Radio Quyaash.

The people who will benefit from having access to the Internet and email communications will be Radio Quyaash journalists themselves, journalists from other media outlets in Maimana, the local community as well as government institutions.

One of the goals over the coming weeks is to continue to provide training for the local community, journalists and those who work in the provincial government. Seventy people have already received basic information technology training as part of this initiative.

UNHCR: Thank you Adrian. Good morning everybody. We met a month or so ago after I had just arrived and I said that we would see each other regularly. I see this as another opportunity to continue our dialogue with you and to continue to inform Afghan public opinion about our policies and the overall situation of Afghan refugees, especially in Pakistan and Iran. The subject today is the forthcoming meeting of the tri-partite commission - UNHCR, and the government's of Pakistan and Afghanistan - which will take place on 8 June in Dubai. The occasion of these discussions is also an opportunity to review together the Afghan refugee presence in Pakistan.

I will just go through the agenda very quickly, and highlight the most important points that we will discuss with Pakistan and then we will open for questions. The first point on the agenda in Dubai is discussion on the renewal of the tri-partite agreement. As you know, we have an agreement with Pakistan that expired at the end of last year, 2006. Since then we have been discussing with Pakistan the renewal of the agreement and clearly Dubai is a good opportunity to continue and hopefully conclude those discussions and agreement.

The second issue is reintegration. As you know, reintegration is a critical issue for the return of Afghans. We will certainly have a very wide discussion with our Pakistani friends and we are certainly very concerned about the deterioration of the security conditions in the country. We are also concerned and will discuss the limited capacity that this country has to absorb large numbers of people coming back. You all saw the recent problems of the deportees from Iran and you all saw the problems we went through.

The third and critical issue is camp closures. This is something we also discussed last time. And as we speak, we are seeing at one of these camps in Katcha Gari a very intense dialogue between the government of Pakistan, elders and the inhabitants of the camps. We stressed once again the importance of voluntariness, the importance of people being able to choose whether to remain or whether to return back to Afghanistan. But equally important is this dialogue between elders and the Pakistani government. Once again, we would like to reiterate our call to our Pakistani friends on the importance of dialogue and a peaceful resolution of the closure of the camp but also restraint regarding the use of force in the discussions they will have with the elders. We have been in touch with the Pakistani government on a daily basis on this issue and we have received an assurance from them that the closure of the camps will happen in a peaceful way.

My last point, which is also the last point of the discussion in Dubai is about the future. We will hear the Pakistani government presenting a three-year plan which has recently been adopted by the Pakistani cabinet. You all know that Afghans in Pakistan have registration cards entitling them to stay in Pakistan for three more years. I think the discussion with the Pakistani and Afghan government will be reflect what will happen over the next three years, until the expiration of the card that the Afghans actually hold.

Thank you very much - I'm now happy to take questions.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:

Question - Internews: For how long will the tri-partite agreement, to be signed soon, be extended? Secondly, in relation to the forced deportation of Afghans, UNHCR and the government of Afghanistan and Iran had regular meetings to discuss the refugee issues in Iran. Why did they [Iran] violate the tri-partite agreement and force people to return back?

UNHCR: On your first question, if the agreement is signed, its duration will be three years. So if it is signed today, it should be valid up until the beginning of 2010. If it is signed this will be very good because this coincides also with the period of the registration card.

On the second question, the agreement between Afghanistan, Iran and UNHCR does not cover un-registered people. If you go through the agreement, which is actually available on the UNHCR website, you will see that the very first article of the agreement defines the categories of people who fall under the agreement, and only registered Afghans fall under the agreement.

However, I have to say, since I have been witness to many of these discussions, the Afghan Government has very, very often presented the situation of the un-registered, and the situation with the deportees, and in many instances they have complained - vis-à-vis the Iranians - about the treatment and human rights violations in the deportation of Afghans. So there has been, in the past, that sort of dialogue between the two governments.

Question - Kabul Times: If this agreement is not signed, what conditions will the refugees have? Will they be deported by force? Most of the refugees are living in Pakistan illegally, without any registration cards.

UNHCR: First of all, there are more than two million Afghans in Pakistan who hold registration cards. Under that card, there is an obligation by Pakistan to allow the people to remain, and I think that this, in my view, represents a very important safeguard against what you thought could happen.

Then, we estimate the number of unregistered Afghans to be not very large. First and foremost, because there is a very large number of Afghans who move back and forth between the two countries. They can be in Pakistan, but they can also be in Afghanistan at the same time.

Secondly, in the month of March, we allowed more than 200,000 Afghans who didn't have a card, to return, and this was quite successful, so I assume that we are not going to see what we have seen before. Secondly, because of the card, we will be extremely vigilant to ensure that the rights that go along with the card are respected.

Question - Radio Free Europe: If the closing process of the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan is peaceful, what do you think would be the future effects of the results?

UNHCR: I can only wish that it will be peaceful, and I think perhaps that one of the purposes of the discussion in Dubai, which I consider to be very important, is to impress, once again on the Pakistani government, as we have done every day, to make sure that it is peaceful, that there is a dialogue between the elders and the government on the closure of the camp, and that there is no use of force. I think that only by continuing this dialogue and by being vigilant, in order to guarantee the respect of the basic principles, that we can make sure that things go well.

The future depends very much upon how the situation in Afghanistan will evolve. We have reason to be concerned about the deterioration of security conditions, in many of the areas where Afghans are coming from. We are also very concerned that the capacity for this country to absorb large numbers is very limited, as we have seen, and also about the decreasing access that many of us have in areas of interventions.

Question - BBC: The closure of camps programme in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon. Firstly, how sure are you that these four camps are going to be closed? If it happens (because in the past, the government of Pakistan had announced the closure of these camps, but it didn't happen), if it happens, let me draw your attention to the 50,000 deported Afghans in Farah, and look at their situation. In terms of security and of welfare, is UNHCR additionally prepared to receive these people and provide them with assistance, since it is a large number - 220,000 of them?

UNHCR: I think you are right, it is not the first time, this has happened since 2002. But there is a difference this time. The difference is that the people who are living in these camps are people who have been living in Pakistan for a very long time. The camps you refer to in 2002-2003 were people who had been there for a very short period of time. These were the camps holding the influx that came immediately after the fall of the Taliban.

You are also right to say that the camp of Katcha Gari has been on the "closure list" for the last three years. Jalozai has only been on that list for the first time this year, it was never previously on the agenda. As far as we are concerned, I think that it is critical to make sure that the principles are right. The most important principle of all is the voluntary nature of the returns. That's where I think we are accountable, and where the government of Pakistan is accountable.

Secondly, it is critical to ensure that principles are observed in the way that it happens - the modality - where there is room for dialogue, for discussion, for choices, for options, for restraint. That's how we would like to see this happening. As I said, we made a call on the Pakistani government before, we do it every day, we meet with the Pakistani government every day, [to reiterate that] it has to happen in a peaceful way.

Your question about preparedness is also a very valid one. Many of the people are coming from areas of insecurity, and where access is also limited, so clearly we have a concern about our capacity, if we are called upon to respond to large numbers. That I think is a very important point, and a point that we will certainly be discussing with the Pakistani government to make sure that if the return happens, it happens in a very gradual way. This is also one of the principles under which we have been operating for the last five years, and I'm pretty sure that the Pakistanis are also very committed to that.

Question - Reuters: Can I ask you for an update about the Iranian situation. How many people have been forced back over the border to Afghanistan? What is the condition on the Afghan side? Would you describe this is a humanitarian crisis for Afghanistan?

UNHCR: As of today we are talking of approximately 100,000 Afghans that have been deported since 21 April. As you know, the crisis at the very beginning had a very high number of people being deported, but this has decreased in the last couple of weeks. So what we see know is approximately one thousand deportees per day crossing the border.

The majority cross the border at Zaranj or Islam Qala. The majority are single males were who residing in Iran probably for a shorter period of time and the majority of them went back to their place of origin relatively quickly. I think many of these people face different types of problems, I think certainly the modalities of deportations which were sometimes quick and not totally according to all standards and also a number of socio-economic problems during their return are problems I which as I've said, many Afghans also face today.

I think what is probably different from deportations in the past, because Iran has been deporting Afghans every year in very large numbers, what has been very critical, I think, this year has been the situation of families and especially the families who are deported from Sistan-Balochistan to Nimroz and to Farah as I mentioned earlier.

The humanitarian problems relating to these families are very evident. First of all they have been living outside of the country for a very long time. They were not able to go back to their places of origin, and to regain whatever facilities were there. So they are stranded in Farah city for example and in some places of Nimroz as well. Access has been difficult to many of these places because of a deteriorating security situation in Farah. The UN, under the leadership of IOM which is a team leader on this issue has devised two responses - the first response which has been a short-term response and the second more long-term.

Thanks to WFP, to UNICEF and to UNHCR we have distributed assistance to these families. As we speak we had a truck yesterday providing non-food items to many of these families, together with UNICEF. So the short-term, the response continues. It is not just us, it is also the Afghan Red Crescent, the Bayat Foundation, it is a number of private Afghans who have also contributed. And then there is a medium-term response which is a part of an appeal that we have just sent and many agencies have participated in that appeal - IOM, UNICEF, WFP, Habitat and WHO, which is a more medium-term response in terms of shelter.

Question - Tamadun TV: [translated from Dari] The question is about the deportation or repatriation of Afghans back to Afghanistan. This is one issue, but for UNHCR or UNAMA the other aspect is providing opportunities for people here in the country, paving the ground to absorb them. I do not know what UNAMA has done, what UNHCR has done, in terms of absorbing these people. Recently we have seen people who are heading back to the neighbouring countries because of unemployment and the lack of opportunities. I wonder if you could tell us what has been done so far and what else you going to do to pave the ground for the sustainable return of these people?

UNHCR: I think you make a very good point concerning a very critical question. Let me tell you, we have been monitoring for the last six years the return of Afghans and one thing that is quite striking every year is that the problems for people who are returning is not very different to the problems facing the majority of Afghans in the country. As you mentioned, access to jobs, access to education, this is what this country is struggling to achieve everyday. We are in the process to develop I would say a strategic approach for the reintegration of the Afghans. As you know, one critical issue in the middle of all of this is the problems relating to land allocation. This is a programme that has had a very difficult beginning for a number of reasons. But, I see today a little bit more light than I saw over the last couple of years. We are very much engaged together with the government and other development actors to make sure that at least some of the initial projects of land allocation can actually become a reality.

Housing, water and access to jobs, is, in my view critical if we want to make this project successful. There is also another aspect, which is the fact that there is a large number of Afghans who work in Iran, who work in Pakistan and who work in the Emirates. This has been going on for many years and this is a fundamental and critical part of the economy of this country. So we also feel that as we talk about Afghans coming back and finding better reintegration for them, we also feel very strongly that time has come for Afghanistan, for its neighbours to begin to have discussions on how the lives of people emigrating or displacing for economic reasons can be better protected or can be better handled. For example, Iran has recently announced the issuance of 300,000 working visas for Afghans. In my view it is critical how the visa will be issued, which sectors, how it is discussed bilaterally so that people can find an opportunity to migrate, to find work legally and at the same time to contribute to the economy of Afghanistan. Many remittances are sent back to Afghanistan as a result of the work of the many Afghans working abroad.

Question - Internews (translated from Dari): The recent remarks made by the Defence Secretary of State about weapons in the hands of anti-government elements. Previously Pakistan was linked to supporting these anti-government elements. Now, clearly we see that the Iranians are involved in supporting these forces. What is UNAMA's position on this?

Spokesperson: We do not have any information about arms flows from Iran. Clearly, and as we have said many times, positive regional cooperation is absolutely key to resolving the conflict here and in the wider region. UNAMA is engaged in efforts to take this forward and SRSG Koenigs has been active in seeking to build such cooperation.

Thank you all.