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Afghanistan: Relief agencies welcome refugee conference, call for renewed efforts

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Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday 18th November: The repatriation of Afghan refugees since 2002 has been the world's largest repatriation operation ever, with over five million people estimated to have returned, but millions remain in exile in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. Afghanistan is facing enormous challenges meeting the needs of returning refugees to ensure that their return is sustainable.

Tomorrow the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and UNHCR in Afghanistan will co-chair an International Conference on Return and Reintegration. The Conference will work to build consensus on the political, security, economic and social priorities and issues that need to be addressed if continued progress is to be maintained in voluntary repatriation and reintegration. In particular, the Conference will seek to gain endorsement of the estimated budget allocation required to support the reintegration of returnees between 2009 and 2013 in line with the Afghanistan National Development Strategy.

Despite the largest ever repatriation of refugees - more than 5.5 million returning to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2008 - almost 3 million Afghans remain in exile in Pakistan and Iran. Many of these refugees are landless. The Land Allocation Schemes initiated by the Ministry of Refugee and Repatriation in 2005 aim to distribute intact and uncultivated government land to landless returnees and IDPs for the construction of homes. The experience to date of these schemes has not been successful, with many houses not occupied. Ziggy Garewal, Country Director for ACTED in Afghanistan, said "Land Allocation Schemes have the potential to meet many of the reintegration needs of returning refugees, but only if a comprehensive strategy is followed. It is important that the failings in the implementation of Land Allocation Schemes up to now are recognised and remedial steps are taken to ensure that they provide durable solutions for returnees."

Allocation from the national budget alone will not be sufficient to entice these refugees back - there need to be changes in the underlying situation in Afghanistan, which remains one of the poorest countries in the world despite development gains made since 2002. "The Government has endeavoured to understand how much it would cost to plan for future returnees, with a focus on important elements for durable return such as health, education and livelihoods, as well as Land Allocation Schemes. However, without improvements in the security situation refugees will continue to be unwilling to take the risk of returning" said Khial Shah, Managing Director, and Agency for Rehabilitation and Energy Conservation in Afghanistan.

Moreover, the costs that are being estimated for future returns of Afghans who are now refugees do not take into account the 5.5 million Afghans estimated to have returned in the last 6 years, many of whom have flocked to urban centres and spontaneous settlements rather than their places of origin. "Whilst we welcome this Conference on the needs to ensure sustainable reintegration of future returnees, we urge the Afghan Government and the international community not to overlook the needs of the millions of refugees who have already returned and who have not yet managed to re-establish themselves. They remain dependent on the support and goodwill of family and community members" said Niamh Murnaghan, Regional Director, and Norwegian Refugee Council.

The participation of Pakistan and Iran in the Conference is vital as they host, respectively, approximately 1.75 million and 1 million registered refugees. "Neighbouring countries have shown remarkable goodwill towards Afghan refugees over the past 3 decades. At this time of regional economic, political and security turmoil, continued commitment from these governments to that spirit of goodwill is essential to ensure that the safety, wellbeing and dignity of Afghan refugees are preserved", said Ciarán Donnelly, Country Director, International Rescue Committee.

Contacts:

ACTED: Ms Ziggy Garewal +93 799 449 998

AREA: Engineer Khial Shah +93 700 289 631

International Rescue Committee: Mr Ciarán Donnelly +93 700 283 930

Norwegian Refugee Council: Ms Niamh Murnaghan +93 700 293 427