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AFGHANISTAN: UN High Commissioner for Refugees inaugurates Return Commission

KABUL, 5 March 2003 (IRIN) - Thousands of ethnic Pashtuns displaced in Afghanistan in fear of persecution were given some hope of being able to return to their homes in the north, following the inaugural meeting of the country’s Return Commission, which was attended by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers, Enayatollah Nazeri, the Afghan minister for refugees and repatriation, and Afghan commanders.

“In the meeting it was said that the commission should send delegations to these sites [where Pashtuns are living, namely in Zhare Dasht in southern Kandahar Province] to discuss their return and explain that security is improving, and I think this will motivate people to return home,” Lubbers told IRIN at a press conference in the capital, Kabul, on Sunday, having just returned from the north.

The idea for the Return Commission arose following concerns expressed over the safe return of refugees to the north after the head of the office of the UNHCR in Afghanistan met President Hamid Karzai, with whom he discussed the establishment of such a commission.

There have been reports of harassment of ethnic Pashtuns in the north by new leaders, who are ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. Of the estimated 700,000 displaced people throughout the country, 400,000 are in the south and up to 15 percent of them are thought to be Pashtuns who fled their homes in the north in fear of persecution following the Northern Alliance offensive late in 2001.

The meeting, which was held on 28 February, was the first in a series of government-sponsored return commissions to explore ways of helping displaced Afghans return to their communities. But continuing ethnic tension in some parts of the country was a major impediment to return and development aid, UNHCR warned.

During his four-day trip to Afghanistan, Lubbers visited the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, where he held a meeting with the commission, whose members comprised Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Jonbesh-e Melli-ye Eslami (National Islamic Movement), Gen Ustad Ata Mohammad of the Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic Society), and Sardar Saidi, the local head of the Hezb-e-Wahdat {Unity Party).

“We hope when we deliver secure conditions that we will not only see a reward for the people in returning back, but also more projects, meaning more jobs and support from the international community,” Lubbers told reporters at the press briefing.

Under an accord signed by the three tribal leaders following the meeting, they agreed to broadly publicise the ground-breaking agreement and said they would take measures against any of their local commanders who did wrong.

With reports of security deteriorating in the north, and increased fighting in Gosfandi in Sar-e Pol Province, leading to the suspension of the UN mission there, Lubbers admitted there were still a number of problems. However, he maintained that he was convinced they were on the right track. “The solution is not to backtrack,” he said.

Asked how closely UNHCR would be monitoring returnees, he replied: “We have been very much with the people. But, secondly, we have access, and local commanders see us as relevant and they know we can report to their bosses and the factional leadership. This is also preventative.”

On the question of ensuring safety for refugees returning from abroad, Lubbers emphasised that returns were on a voluntary basis and that refugees were informed of the situation inside their homeland before making the decision to return. “We are calling on neighbouring countries not to force people back, but to work together with us for voluntary return,” he stressed.

But none of this will be possible without an increase in donor commitment. Lubbers referred to a shortfall in the cash available for operations in Afghanistan, and appealed to donors for funding. “UNHCR needs US $195 million this year to help Afghans return home from Pakistan and Iran, and rebuild 60,000 homes, but so far we have only received US $16 million,” he said.

Themes: (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs

[ENDS]

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