Afghanistan + 2 more

UNHCR briefing notes: Afghanistan, Liberia/Guinea

News and Press Release
Originally published
Kris Janowski - Media Relations
This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva.

1) High Commissioner in Afghanistan

In Kabul today, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers discussed with Chairman Hamid Karzai of the Afghan Interim Administration UNHCR's strategy for the repatriation and reintegration of Afghan refugees and internally displaced people.

Lubbers' meeting with Karzai came as the number of Afghans returning from Pakistan under a UNHCR joint repatriation program that began on March 1 topped a quarter of a million.

In their meeting, Lubbers told Karzai that security is indispensable to repatriation. But more importantly, he said, successful reintegration would lead to stability.

Karzai said reintegration was one of the top priorities of the Interim Administration and expressed his appreciation for UNHCR's long involvement and assistance to Afghans.

The two met at the Presidential Palace for 40 minutes. Lubbers arrived in Kabul on Monday evening from the Iran-Afghan border, where on Sunday he saw some of the 1,000 Afghan refugees who crossed the border into Afghanistan that day under a heavy rain.

Lubbers said security in the countryside was crucial if people are to be encouraged to return to rural areas and to avoid returns only to urban areas. That means we need packages of assistance, he said. UNHCR is basically concentrating on shelter and water, but we are working with other organizations for other things as well.

In addition to surpassing the 250,000 return figure from Pakistan yesterday, UNHCR also began assisted repatriations from the capital region, Islamabad. Some 100 Afghans who had been living in the Islamabad area registered with a mobile UNHCR team in the city. Many of those registering were educated, including several teachers who said they were giving up jobs in Pakistan to return home to help rebuild their country.

At the current rate of returns, Lubbers said he expected that this year's target figure of 400,000 returns from Pakistan would probably be reached this summer. He said repatriation from Iran, which started on 9 April, would likely pick up substantially after a relatively slow start. The number returning from Iran on Monday was about 1,500, up from around 1,000 the day before. Lubbers said many of the Afghan refugees had found jobs in Iran would be slower to make a decision to go home.

Following his arrival in Kabul, the High Commissioner went to the Pul-I-Charkhi center in the outskirts of the city, where returnees from Pakistan receive a travel grant of $20 per person (or $100 per family of five), a UNHCR package of relief supplies and 150 kgs of food from the World Food Program.

Asked about a funding shortfall for Afghanistan, Lubbers said he told donors "not to let me down, but there is always a difficulty to translate (pledges) into cash." UNHCR as of 10 April had raised more than $160 million of the $271 million needed through the end of the year. UNHCR currently has 20 offices and field units in throughout Afghanistan, manned by 322 national and 75 international staff members.

Tomorrow (Wednesday), Lubbers is scheduled to travel to Jalalabad, visit a camp for internally displaced people at Hesar Shahi and a center at Mohmandara providing transportation expenses to returnees. Then he heads for Peshawar and Islamabad, Pakistan, where he will meet with President Parvez Musharaf.

The eight-day visit to the Afghanistan region is Lubbers' third in 12 months.

2) Cambodia

UNHCR is concerned over the destruction and looting of UNHCR property in Cambodia's Mondulkiri refugee camp, which until Monday morning housed Vietnamese "Montagnard" refugees.

UNHCR staff in the camp said Cambodian officials failed to intervene Monday as local people hauled away items left behind by the Montagnards, who departed for Phnom Penh earlier in the day on their way to resettlement in the United States. The camp, including the UNHCR office, was thoroughly looted and burned to the ground as Cambodian police stood by and watched. Also present were a number of Vietnamese officials. UNHCR staff recognized at least two Vietnamese who had visited the camp earlier this month with relatives of the Montagnards in an apparent effort to intimidate the Montagnard refugees into going back to Viet Nam. One UNHCR worker on Monday was threatened by a man brandishing a knife. UNHCR staff saw local police loading loot onto a truck. UNHCR staff managed to save some office equipment before looters sacked the premises.

The Mondulkiri camp housed several hundred Vietnamese Montagnards who fled Viet Nam's Central Highlands one year ago. The group has now been moved to Phnom Penh and will be resettled in the United States.

(Note: After Tuesday's briefing, a report from UNHCR Cambodia was received in Geneva advising that a second camp - Ratanakiri - was properly dismantled and closed on Tuesday without incident.)

3) Guinea / Liberia

More than 4,600 Liberians have fled to Guinea since the beginning of this year to escape continued fighting between government and rebel forces in their country.

Crossing the officially closed border in groups of 100 to 150 persons per day, the recently arrived Liberian refugees are often in extremely poor physical condition after having marched weeks before reaching safety in Guinea. Up to 20 percent are suffering from various stages of malnutrition, mostly severe.

The new Liberian refugees are arriving in Guinea via three main entry points in the southwest and southeast of Guinea. Those in the worst physical shape made a detour via Tekoulo in Gueckedou, southwest Guinea, crossing the Lofan River border between the two countries. Many of them are survivors of the Voinjama attack last December and were barely able to find food during their flight

New Liberian refugees coming from Monrovia, the Liberian capital, are in better health when they reach Guinea. They fled after hearing that the rebels had circled Monrovia. Many of them brought most of their possessions.

Also among the new arrivals are former Liberian refugees who had previously repatriated from Guinea. With their previous knowledge of Guinea, many were able to work for local Guinean farmers until UNHCR was able to transfer them to the nearly full Kouankan camp. The relocation of new refugees is done from collection points in the Macenta area, with the assistance of the local government. We are seeking land for a new camp in anticipation of further arrivals.

In all, there are some 73,000 Liberian refugees in Guinea, including about 27,000 in Kouankan and another camp - Kola. Guinea also hosts an estimated 85,000 Sierra Leonean refugees, including some 50,000 in four UNHCR camps.