Rising insecurity dominated developments in the region in 2009, affecting the lives of nationals and refugees alike in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, the volatile security situation saw over two million people leave their homes in the country's North West Frontier Province. Insecurity in Pakistan also saw the periodic suspension of the voluntary repatriation programme for Afghan refugees, as well as the refugee programme in Balochistan. Three UNHCR staff members were killed on duty in Pakistan in 2009 and one was abducted and held by insurgents for two months. As a result, UNHCR has and continues to regularly review its operating procedures in Pakistan and take appropriate mitigating measures.
Insecurity, limited economic opportunities, and the uncertainty surrounding the elections in Afghanistan this year, has had a clear impact on repatriation. Just 53,500 Afghans have returned to their homeland as of end of August 2009, a fifth of the number that returned in 2008. Such a reduction was not initially foreseen for 2009. However, gradual return is more conducive to sustainable reintegration in the current context. Competition for land, water, natural resources, and employment is growing sharper. Conflict and poverty underpin internal displacement, informal settlement in urban areas, and irregular migration generating increasingly complex challenges.
Security conditions have also caused frequent closures of the Voluntary Repatriation Centres in Pakistan. Nonetheless, the demand for and interest in return has evidently declined. The uncertainty over Afghanistan's stabilization is likely to continue affecting repatriation as well as displacement in Afghanistan. The Office in Afghanistan has already made significant adjustments this year to further enhance the operation's ability to meet both sudden and complex instances of displacement and to further strengthen protection capacity.
Despite the challenging conditions in Afghanistan, continued investment in refugee return and reintegration is needed more than ever. In line with the key objectives of the Refugee Returnee and IDP (RRI) Sector Strategy of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) highlighted last November at the Kabul Conference, the mainstreaming of reintegration into national development programmes in high return areas is needed to stabilize return movements and increase absorption capacity. Since 2002, over 5.6 million Afghans have returned to their homeland. This figure represents a 20 percent increase in the estimated population of Afghanistan, a huge socio-economic challenge for such a poor country.
Against this backdrop of a deteriorating situation and shrinking absorption capacity in Afghanistan, there have been positive developments in both Pakistan and Iran in 2009 towards expanding the protection space and improving conditions for the remaining registered Afghans. Some 1.7 million registered Afghans remain in Pakistan and some 935,000 registered Afghans remain in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Pakistan there is a commitment to extend the Proof of Registration (PoR) cards for Afghan citizens in Pakistan until the end of 2012 and the government is revising its Strategy for the Management of Afghans. Progress has also been made in the Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas (RAHA) coexistence programme with the launch of a USD 140 million five year appeal in May 2009. A RAHA programme cell has been established in the Ministry for States and Frontiers Region (SAFRON), a joint UN programme support unit is being set up within UNHCR to lend expertise and build the capacity of the Provincial Management Units. In Iran, the authorities have completed the re-registration of refugees and are issuing work permits to registered Afghan refugees. UNHCR and the authorities are working on a strategy to improve the living conditions of registered Afghan refugees, including better access to health and education facilities in Iran.
UNHCR remains committed to supporting the voluntary and gradual repatriation of registered Afghan in Pakistan and Iran as the best guarantor for the sustainable reintegration of Afghans in their homeland.