Repatriation and reintegration of Afghan refugees

Article, 10.05.2012

The aim of the International Conference on Afghan Displacement, held in Geneva on 2-3 May 2012, was to find sustainable solutions for Afghan refugees. The new strategy endorsed by the conference primarily supports voluntary repatriation, sustainable reintegration and assistance to host countries. The conference can be regarded as a success for Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan in view of the support pledged by the international community, and for Switzerland as the host country and facilitator for implementation of the new strategy.

«Afghan refugees have shown that they are capable of returning en masse when the conditions for their return are favourable. They have consistently supported repatriation. Accordingly, we have a collective responsibility to help them and respond to their legitimate objectives.»These were the words of António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, addressing the international community which recently gathered in Geneva to discuss the Afghan refugee problem.

The aim of the new strategy drawn up ahead of the International Conference on Afghan Displacement is twofold: To preserve asylum space for Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries over at least the next three years, and to finance sustainable reintegration for those Afghans who return home.

According to the joint communiqué issued by the conference, the focus in Afghanistan is on supporting the reintegration of refugees and displaced persons. Conference participants recognised the need to enhance the development and reintegration of high-return communities in Afghanistan in order to create a situation where Afghans are not obliged to leave their country to seek a livelihood, and to establish sustainable, viable communities.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, efforts will go towards supporting returns to Afghanistan as well as help in ensuring that such returns are sustainable. Pakistan will concentrate on voluntary repatriation and providing assistance to host communities. The international community recognised the economic and social costs as well as the environmental impact of this protracted situation on Iran and Pakistan, and reaffirmed the importance of international burden-sharing. The communiqué said that the international community reaffirmed its commitment to supporting the humanitarian needs of Afghan refugees and affected host communities.

Intelligent solutions for a complex situation

The conference, which was jointly chaired by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and Switzerland, welcomed delegates from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan: the three countries most closely affected by the issue of Afghan refugees. Delegates from more than 40 countries attended the conference to discuss a solutions strategy for one of the world's most difficult and protracted refugee situations.

Since 1978 Aghanistan has been destabilised by successive wars which have resulted in a mass exodus of Afghans, mainly to neighbouring countries. Today Pakistan takes in around 1.7 million refugees, and Iran almost 1 million. Moreover, the UNHCR estimates that 2.5 million unregistered Afghans are living in Pakistan and Iran.

While more than 5.7 million Afghans have returned home since 2002, many returnees are living a highly precarious existence as displaced persons in their own country. They are obliged to live in tents or find temporary shelter with limited access to food and water. There is little or no guarantee of finding work or gaining access to education and medical care.

As Federal Council Didier Burkhalter, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, emphasised in his opening address to the conference, «The proposed strategy (…) has been drawn up in the context of a lengthy process between the three countries involved. It fully and intelligently addresses the question of mass displacement and throws light on concrete intervention measures within a highly complex environment. For example, the promotion of voluntary repatriation accompanied by investments in high return zones; or the maintenance of asylum space in the host countries by reinforcing the support provided by the host communities. This calls for robust and sustainable engagement. The international community must commit to this inclusive strategy for the long term.It is essential to sustainably mobilise the three governments in the region, the HCR, the community of donors as well as other involved actors in humanitarian aid and development.»