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07 February 2002

UNHCR Concerned About Afghan Security

(Lubbers reports on refugee situations in Afghanistan, Africa) (940)
By Judy Aita
Washington File United Nations Correspondent
United Nations -- The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told the
Security Council February 6 that security must be a high priority for
Afghanistan and he supported calls for the International Security
Assistance Force (ISAF) to be extended throughout the country.
During a public meeting with the Security Council, Ruud Lubbers, U.N.
High Commissioner for Refugees, said that "security is the most
important factor" in getting a significant number of the almost 5
million Afghan refugees and displaced persons to return to their
"At this moment we see 'two clouds in the sky.' One is a number of
incidents in which...especially Pashtuns are now fleeing from certain
regions where obviously there is a lack of tolerance and respect of
security," Lubbers said.
"We fear the second cloud is that enthusiasm will go down if there is
not sufficient security in the countryside," he said. "I am not in a
position to estimate what that means in numbers, but the signals
encourage us to look seriously to addressing this security problem."
Lubbers said he is concerned about deteriorating security in various
parts of Afghanistan. "Events such as those in Paktia and Balkh
provinces and ethnic tension in general in the north of the country,
including Baghlan province, are inevitably a deterrent to the return
of refugees and internationally displaced people. They also prevent
access for humanitarian operations."
On February 5, U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi
asked the council to give "urgent consideration" to expanding the ISAF
from Kabul to the rest of the country. He reported that security is
the main preoccupation of the population and the continuing clashes
and instability are generating fears around the country that peace
will not last.
Even before September 11, Afghans constituted the largest single
refugee population in the world with 3.5 million in Pakistan and Iran
and others spread out around the world. Since September 11, some
300,000 Afghans have fled to Iran and Pakistan. In December the number
of internally displaced people was estimated at about 1 million, the
high commissioner said.
While an estimated 800 people a day have been seeking refuge in
Pakistan, about 100,000 Afghan refugees have been repatriated since
the end of November, Lubbers said. The two reasons cited by those
still fleeing have been lack of sufficient assistance and
discrimination against Pashtuns, the high commissioner said.
Lubbers said that while it is difficult to estimate the magnitude and
speed at which Afghans will return home, UNHCR has drawn up an initial
plan to help up to 1.2 million returnees in 2002.
Lubbers also said that the global fight against terrorism must not
weaken international refugee protection. For years, refugees and
asylum seekers have been treated with mistrust and hostility in many
countries and are particularly vulnerable, he said. Governments must
avoid resorting to mandatory or arbitrary detention of asylum seekers
and apply the standards of due process, he added.
U.S. Ambassador Sichan Siv said that the United States "cannot and
will not permit the tragic events of September 11 to compromise our
longstanding tradition of providing refuge to those in need."
"We must make sure, however, that terrorists are not allowed to take
advantage of the refugee protection system," said Siv, who is the U.S.
representative to the Economic and Social Council.
"This can be prevented through scrupulous application of the
exceptions to refugee protection available under current law. We stand
ready to work with UNHCR to ensure that refugee status determination
procedures and registration methods take into account the new security
measures to combat terrorism," he said.
The ambassador also stressed the importance of security in refugee
"We need to ensure that refugees are protected from attacks, from
hostage-taking, from recruitment, and from sexual and gender-based
violence," Siv said.
Lubbers also discussed the worldwide refugee situation noting that
while international attention has been focused on Afghanistan, Africa
consumes the greatest share of UNHCR's resources and attention with
more than 5 million refugees, a number of whom have been languishing
for years in refugee camps almost entirely dependent on humanitarian
The high commissioner spoke positively, however, about the situations
in Sierra Leone, Eritrea, and Somalia.
Repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees has begun in earnest
especially refugees from Guinea, and UNHCR will soon start aiding
returns from other countries, especially Liberia, he said. And over
the last year, some 36,000 refugees have been voluntarily repatriated
from Sudan to Eritrea, and UNHCR expects to complete the repatriation
of those refugees -- some who have been living in camps since the
1960s and 1970s -- by 2003, Lubbers said.
In another successful repatriation operation about 50,000 refugees
have returned from Ethiopia from northwest and northeast Somalia over
the last year, Lubbers said.
"These numbers may be modest in comparison with the total numbers of
refugees in Africa, but they are significant in that we are finally
putting an end to what have been very protracted refugee situations.
The challenge now is to make sure that these returns are sustainable,"
he said.
Siv said that the United States is concerned about the range of
refugee situations in Africa. "We welcome the prospects for voluntary
return in safety and dignity but caution against premature and
therefore destabilizing repatriation," the U.S. ambassador said.
"We are pleased with the progress towards peace in Sierra Leone," Siv
said. "While we continue to support efforts to facilitate the return
of Sierra Leonean refugees who have expressed a firm desire to
repatriate, we recognize that for many the time is not yet right for
(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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