Growing insecurity and food crises dominated developments in the region in 2008. Antigovernment attacks rose sharply in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, while nationals, refugees and returnees alike all suffered from the rising prices of food and fuel.
By mid September 2008, almost 250,000 registered Afghans had repatriated from Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, higher than anticipated for the year, and the Afghan voluntary repatriation programme remains the largest UNHCR return operation worldwide. Over 5 million Afghans have returned to their homeland since 2002. Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran continue to be the top refugee hosting countries, with 1.8 and 0.9 million registered Afghan refugees respectively. The vast majority of returnees in 2008 have been from Pakistan. Many cite the rising cost of living as their main reason for returning home, the closure of Jalozai refugee village and impact of the unrest in tribal areas.
Yet the sharp drivers of return this year have not been without consequence for Afghans on return to their homeland. More than 28,000 returnees this year are living in five spontaneous settlements in eastern Afghanistan, unable to return to their place of origin due to insecurity, landlessness, personal enmity or lack of livelihood possibilities. Further situations of internal displacement in Afghanistan have been caused by the drought and food shortages this year as well as fighting in the southern region.
Neighbouring Pakistan has faced increased security problems and a recent government crackdown on militants, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan, combined with floods in August, has led to internal displacement in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Humanitarian access in Afghanistan has decreased as a result of insecurity and it is also becoming more problematic in NWFP. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the government has declared 22 provinces, in full or in part, as no-go areas for foreigners, requiring registered Afghan refugees to relocate or repatriate. Growing economic uncertainty and the forthcoming elections may also have an impact on the registered refugee population in Iran.
Mindful of the challenges in Afghanistan, UNHCR welcomes the announcement of the Government of Pakistan to review its three year plan that initially foresaw the repatriation of all registered Afghans by the end of 2009. The Islamic Government of Iran opted to postpone the renewal of the Tripartite Agreement governing voluntary repatriation, pending a positive outcome of the Kabul International Conference on Return and Reintegration. UNHCR looks forward to resuming discussions with Islamic Republic of Iran on the renewal of the Tripartite Agreement in the near future.
With the launch of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) at the Paris Conference on 12 June 2008, the international community pledged USD 20 billion in support of Afghanistan. There was consensus on the need for the international community to coordinate and distribute aid more effectively, partly through alignment with the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS), and adopt tougher anti-corruption measures and strengthen governance.
On 19 November 2008, the Kabul International Conference on Return and Reintegration will seek to mobilise support around the ANDS sector strategy on Refugees, Returnees and IDPs (Internally Displaced People). Co-chaired by the Foreign Ministry of Afghanistan and UNHCR, this high-level event will also present a realistic current and medium-term perspective on return and seek to establish a workable approach which takes into consideration the concerns of the neighbouring states.