Pakistan has remained a generous host to millions of Afghan refugees for three long decades despite the impact this has had on the nation and its people. It remains the largest refugee hosting country in the world.
Though millions of Afghans still need continued international protection in many countries, the last decade has also seen some 5.7 million Afghans returning home constituting the largest voluntary repatriation anywhere in the world. As such, a quarter of Afghanistan's population today constitute of refugee returnees who choose to return home in the hope of restarting their lives.
UNHCR has agreed with Afghanistan and its two neighbors—Pakistan and Iran—on a new strategy that will be presented at an international conference scheduled in Switzerland in early May this year. This gathering will seek support for programmes inside Afghanistan that will increase the sustainability of returns and create conditions that will attract more repatriation. It also seeks the commitment of the international community to support countries that host Afghan refugees.
[DC]: Which refugee or IDP situation strikes you as the most devastating?
[IR]: Any form of forced displacement has a negative and devastating impact on human lives. Individuals who suffer the most from the consequences of such events are often women and children. Having worked for UNHCR in different operations in Africa, Asia, and the Balkans, I can say that helping people to rebuild their lives from scratch after going through the trauma of displacement is an extremely challenging task.
The Afghan situation is one of the most complex and protracted refugee situations that the world has been dealing with for the last three decades. We are still struggling to find durable solutions for many Afghans who continue to live as refugees. Assisting those who have returned home to reintegrate successfully continues to be a challenge. Afghanistan itself and the neighboring countries that host Afghans need continued international support to make a long lasting solution possible.
[DC]: What are conditions like on the ground?
[IR]: Conditions remain difficult for refugees as well as for returnees who have returned home. Afghanistan is gradually trying to come out of many years of conflict and devastation. The country still has to deal with many complex issues related to nation building. These include, reconciliation, development, governance, security, refugee returns, and ongoing internal displacement. While some 5.7 million have returned to Afghanistan since 2002, there are also around half a million internally displaced Afghans fleeing ongoing conflict and insecurity in parts of Afghanistan.
In Pakistan and Iran conditions are also becoming tougher because of economic and security challenges. The impact of hosting refugees for over three decades has taken its toll on the host communities. Therefore communities that have hosted refugees in these countries also need continued support and solidarity to share their burden.
[DC]: What is UNHCR doing to improve these conditions?
[IR]: UNHCR works closely with governments, civil society, and partners to help manage the refugee population in Pakistan and Iran and has also endeavored to support the reintegration of returning Afghans into the social fabric of Afghanistan. We continue to assist Afghans who want to return home under our voluntary repatriation programme—in safety and dignity—which means helping them with a transport grant and a moderate amount to cover their initial return expenses. We have also built 200,000 shelters for the most vulnerable returnee Afghans—who would not have been able to do it themselves. UNHCR is also working on host community support programs in Pakistan.
UNHCR has engaged the international community to ensure continued support for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran while seeking solutions and better protection for the remaining refugee population. Recently we have developed a multi-year Solutions Strategy for Afghan refugees together with the governments of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, which sets out a road map for the next few years. This strategy will be presented for endorsement to key stakeholders and the international community in early May in Switzerland. It is our collective hope that we will continue to have the engagement, support, and solidarity of the international community to address the plight of Afghan refugees.
[DC]: What constraints is UNHCR facing on the ground?
[IR]: Our constraints are as complex as many other issues that Afghanistan faces today. We have to remember that the country has been through three decades of war and devastation. Nation building is not a process that fits neatly into time frames; it takes time and investment in institutions and human capital. It takes political will and commitment. UNHCR has to deal with shrinking humanitarian space in Afghanistan and a deep sense of asylum fatigue in the host countries. To give an example: though the voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan has decreased in the past three years, in 2011 the Afghan repatriation program was still the largest worldwide with some 70,000 returns. At the same time we saw the highest number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and internal displacement. Afghans also constituted the largest number of asylum seekers globally reaching as far as Australia. This underscores the complexity of the situation.
In the current security context with limited humanitarian space and access, repatriation and reintegration activities are becoming increasingly challenging in many parts of Afghanistan. UNHCR, very recently, lost three staff members in Kandahar. So against all these challenges we intend to remain engaged in Afghanistan to help people. At the end of the day our focus is the people.
[DC]: What is the role of Goodwill Ambassadors? How are they helping achieve the mission of UNHCR?
[IR]: With the right profile, visibility, status, and influence, Goodwill Ambassadors are powerful advocates for the refugee cause. They can play a significant role on behalf of refugees as they draw attention to refugee related issues, help amplify media coverage, and reach audiences otherwise not easily accessible to UNHCR. They can also contribute to the branding of the Organization, help to raise its profile and mobilize people to care and give to UNHCR.
[DC]: How important is donor support to this operation?
[IR]: UNHCR is an organization that relies entirely on funding from governments and the general public. Donor support is the backbone of UNHCR operations. It is also of paramount importance that the international community appreciates and supports countries that host millions of refugees. Most refugees are hosted by the developing world that share the burden and contribute to the well being of millions of refugees.
[DC]: What can the average person do to support UNHCR's work?
[IR]: It is important that people understand who is a refugee and what compelling circumstances lead to someone becoming a refugee. These are people like you and I and the reason they had to leave their home was to save their lives. At one stage in their life refugees are confronted with this dilemma of either staying back and risk everything they have or seek protection somewhere else. UNHCR welcomes and seeks public support for its initiative at all times.
The public can donate to UNHCR’s project that directly assists refugees here.
Photo: UNHCR/B. Baloch. Inrdika Ratwatee - sitting second from left - listens to an Afghan elder at the Surkhab refugee camp in southwest Pakistan.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April 2012 issue.