As the world's attention focuses on a speculative crisis in the Middle East, a number of other UNHCR emergency or return operations have dropped out of the limelight in recent months.
Some donor countries have stated that regardless of future developments in the Middle East, funding for UNHCR's worldwide refugee programmes will not be affected. However, some of the most pressing needs, like return and reintegration in Afghanistan and Angola, are not being met. If funds are not forthcoming immediately, some of these projects could fall through.
In addition to its 2003 regular annual budget of $836.2 million, UNHCR has appealed for $204.7 million for its supplementary programmes to support special operations in 2003 for which planning could not be finalised in 2002. These programmes will ensure that new refugees fleeing war-torn regions like West Africa receive the necessary support, and that others whose countries are finally at peace can make a durable return this year to their homeland - in Afghanistan, Angola and Sri Lanka.
Under the supplementary programmes, Afghanistan remains UNHCR's biggest operation this year. About 2 million Afghans returned home last year; the agency is preparing to assist up to 1.5 million returning refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) this year.
UNHCR's 2003 Afghan programme needs more than $156.9 million to begin the procurement of materials to help rehabilitate 60,000 homes and to buy the necessary relief items for returnees this year. So far, only $1 million has been received, slowing down the procurement and pre-positioning of aid for UNHCR's repatriation and reintegration activities in Afghanistan.
UNHCR's top official in Afghanistan, Filippo Grandi, has warned that a shift of international focus to Iraq and elsewhere should not come at the expense of Afghanistan's long-term development needs. "I am just worried that resources will be taken away from Afghan reconstruction," he said, adding that the US-led military coalition's operation "began as an investment in security, and for that investment to succeed, development aid must flow."
In southern Africa, the end of the war in Angola has raised high hopes for return among the nearly half million Angolan refugees scattered in the region. About 170,000 are expected to head home this year in the largest repatriation programme undertaken by UNHCR in Africa since the Great Lakes crisis.
UNHCR needs $29.5 million to ensure that everything is in place in Angola to receive the returnees and help them reintegrate. Out of this amount, $9.3 million is urgently needed - before the end of February - to complete preparatory activities before the rainy season starts again later in the year. These activities include the repair of roads and bridges, the monitoring of borders, the protection of vulnerable groups, and mine-awareness programmes for returnees in Angola and in countries of asylum prior to return. People are going home empty-handed and they need basic items like blankets, cooking pots, seeds and agricultural tools before they can restart their lives.
The Angolan repatriation convoys are expected to start in May, once the rainy season ends, but without adequate funds, that plan may collapse.
"We need to get funding right now, failing which, the organised repatriation operation this year may simply not take place," said David Lambo, UNHCR Director for the Africa Bureau. "We need to set up field offices, reception centres, warehouses for the relief items and logistics support for the repatriation. Everything has to be done from scratch."
He cautioned, "We only have a six- to seven-month window of opportunity for the operation because of the rains."
So far, only $4.6 million - half of the urgently needed funds - has been received for the Angolan operation.
Last year, over 1 million IDPs also resettled in their areas of origin in Angola. Close to 120,000 of them settled in the four provinces where UNHCR is present, and will therefore receive the same assistance package as returnees from neighbouring countries. More IDPs are set to return this year.
The absorption capacity in the Angolan communities of return is very low and much more needs to be done for rebuilding and reintegration in areas where infrastructure has been destroyed and communities shattered by war. Here again, urgent funds are needed to start buying the necessary assistance items and to fund initiatives to support the communities in the villages of return. This can be done by providing schools, wells, health centres, emergency mobile clinics and other basic services.
Similarly, in Sri Lanka, over 230,000 IDPs have already returned to their villages since last February's cease-fire. UNHCR expects that about 140,000 more will go home this year. The agency needs $8 million this year to carry out essential protection activities, buy relief items for up to 60,000 families and finance projects to fill gaps in other sectors, including minor infrastructure repairs, rehabilitating water and health services, as well as income-generating activities. UNHCR is still $4.3 million short in this area.
The Sri Lankan operation is one of the pilot projects in UNHCR's newly developed "4Rs" strategy. Encompassing the four key elements of any post-conflict recovery - repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction - this strategy is being carried out in close co-operation with the UN Development Programme, the World Bank and other development agencies. The other pilot projects are in Afghanistan, Eritrea and Sierra Leone.
Another innovative project, the Zambia Initiative, was started last year by the Zambian government and UNHCR. It seeks to help Angolan refugees who choose to stay in Zambia integrate into their host communities by channelling development aid towards local integration projects. So far, the initiative has received none of the $2 million needed for this year.
Compared to the other regions, the West African supplementary appeals have received a somewhat better response, with $2.1 million received for Liberia (out of $4.5 million needed) and $1.5 million (out of $3.7 million needed) for Côte d'Ivoire. But these appeals are likely to be increased in February as the situations continue to develop.