Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Press conference by Ewen MacLeod, Country Representative, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Afghanistan

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Kabul - 14 December 2009

UNHCR: Good morning, everybody. Thank you very much for coming.

I think we see this is as an opportunity to look back a little bit at our work and operations of this year, and to look forward a little bit also to next year, 2010, because it is December 2009. We can also take this opportunity to look back 30 years to the moment when the Soviet occupation began and the start of this refugee challenge which began at the same time. I am sure you know that event in December 1979 started one of the biggest refugee movements in history.

At the high point of the refugee crisis there were some six million Afghans. About 40 per cent of the population of the country, at that time, were forced to take refuge in Pakistan and Iran. And I am sure you will know that for the last 30 years that there have been different forms of refugee movement, UNHCR has been associated in assisting Afghans and refugees throughout that period.

Our organization is a non-political, humanitarian agency. We have worked in Afghanistan under every government over this long period - during the Soviet period, during the mujahideen period, during the Taliban period, and again, since 2001, and 2002 during the present administration.

As you know, our work involves not only providing assistance to refugees when they leave the country, but also assisting them to return voluntarily when they choose to do so. We have been involved in two of the largest return movements in history: one in 1992-93 and second, again, here since 2002.

Today, as many of you again will know, there are approximately 2.6 million Afghan refugees still outside their homeland. This is not a source of pride for UNHCR. We normally wish to conclude our work and ensure there are no refugees left to assist.

The majority of those still remaining in Iran and Pakistan have been outside Afghanistan for more than 25 years. More than half were born as children outside their country. Today, we are already witnessing a third generation of Afghans born to the children of refugees.

At the same time, we should look at the challenges ahead, because, since 2002, already five million Afghans have taken the decision to return to their homeland. We don't have accurate figures for the present population of Afghanistan, but we believe this return of five million people represents a 20 per cent increase in the overall size of the population. This is the huge figure for such a poor country to absorb.

This year, in 2009, the figure for return was 54,000. This represents quite a significant decrease since 2008. There are perhaps four reasons for this: first of all, the security situation that discourages refugees from returning to their homeland. Second, the increasing difficulty humanitarian agencies have in accessing many provinces in the country. Third, there are concerns about employment and economic opportunities for returning Afghans if they choose to come back home. And, fourth, the fact that most of the remaining refugee population has been outside the country for such a long time.

We do believe all these factors - political, security, economic and even demographic are making the solutions for refugees much more difficult. We believe the key to maintaining these extremely high levels of return - that have been recorded since 2002 - are essentially economic. We think economic growth and opportunities are the key factors in attracting Afghans to their homeland now. But, of course, the key issues linked to the improvement of the economy of peace and security.

Humanitarian agencies like UNHCR - we do not have solutions for all the economic challenges, of course, that Afghanistan faces. Humanitarian agencies are not mandated to undertake development or reconstruction work. What we can offer is support essentially for immediate reintegration. One thing that we have been associated with since 2002 is a housing programme. Next year we anticipate building a further 10,000 housing units - that will bring the overall total that we have supported to 200,000 since 2002.