ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, February 2 (UNHCR) – UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Thursday thanked Pakistan for its hospitality towards Afghan refugees while praising its continued commitment to finding lasting solutions to the situation.
During a two-day visit, the High Commissioner has met with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar to discuss an agreement reached in Dubai this week between Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and UNHCR to pursue a regional strategy aimed at finding durable solutions to the Afghan refugee situation.
The new strategy will be presented at an international conference to be held in Switzerland in early May. This gathering will seek support for programmes inside Afghanistan that will increase the attractiveness and sustainability of returns while providing additional support to communities that host Afghan refugees.
Guterres, speaking to journalists at the end of his visit, also called for additional international solidarity with Pakistan and Iran, which both continue to host large numbers of Afghan refugees after more than 30 years.
"At a time when many countries are closing their doors to those fleeing violence and persecution, the generosity of the people and the government of Pakistan towards Afghan refugees deserves greater recognition and support on the part of the international community," he said.
Last year, just over 50,000 Afghan refugees returned home from Pakistan, down from nearly 110,000 in 2010. Despite the decline, the number of Afghan returns last year represented the largest refugee repatriation programme in the world.
"The priority now," said Guterres, "is to create conditions inside Afghanistan that will allow for large-scale voluntary repatriation." Afghan refugees will be more ready to go home once the right conditions are in place inside Afghanistan, he added.
The High Commissioner also commended the Pakistan government for reaffirming its commitment to the voluntary and gradual return of Afghan refugees.
There are currently some 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Since 2002, more than 5 million Afghan refugees have returned to their country, the majority with assistance from UNHCR.
By Tim Irwin