Press conference with UNAMA and UNHCR

3 Nov 2008

Press conference with UNAMA and UNHCR

KABUL - Transcript of press conference by Ewen MacLeod, Acting Representative in Afghanistan, UNHCR and Dr. Nazifullah Salarzai, UNAMA Spokesperson’s Office.

Dari - Pashto

In response to this winter’s needs 36,000 tons of food is being sent to areas that will be cut off. These are part of WFP’s regular programmes as well as for drought and high price mitigation.

From this amount, 38 per cent has been already dispatched to very difficult areas. As an example 55 per cent of the ration for Badakhshan, one of the worst and first affected areas, has been dispatched.

With expected consignments the pipeline is secured until early next spring.

However, we need to receive further support from the donor community to secure the pipeline from March onwards, as the lead time it takes to get food into the country after a donation is three to four months.

Every effort is being made to ensure that food will reach its intended beneficiaries before certain areas become inaccessible. WFP advises that they will keep you informed on progress.

Bamyan’s development will be the subject of a conference that’s being held tomorrow at the Serena Hotel by the Ministry of Economy and the Bamyan provincial authorities.

This conference is a follow-up to a July Conference in Bamyan and aims to improve coordination and partnership between the province, central government, and the international community. It will look at provincial development and cultural and infrastructure plans, and at ensuring that gender concerns are incorporated.

UNDP Afghanistan’s Gender Equality Project is supporting this conference.

Media are invited and an advisory will be sent out later today.

UNHCR: Good morning everybody. I thought I would speak for a short time on three subjects, first of all the repatriation progress in 2008, secondly, how we analyze 2008 in overall terms of the repatriation, and thirdly some remarks on the conference on return and reintegration that is coming up in a couple of weeks time.

The official figure for returns to Afghanistan this year from Pakistan, Iran and what we call non-neighbouring countries is 276,700.

For the sixth consecutive year, this is the largest voluntary repatriation program worldwide.

If we break down that figure, 99 per cent of that 276,000 has returned from Pakistan and only one per cent from Iran and other countries.

If we look regionally the pattern is quite clear, roughly 170,000 people have come back to the Eastern region; and the Eastern region we classify as Nangarhar, Laghman and Kunar. And roughly 47,000 have come back to the Central region which includes Kabul, the province and the city, Logar, Wardak and other provinces close to the capital.

Interestingly of the 273,000 that have come back from Pakistan, 85 per cent came back from the North West Frontier Province.

Just to set this year's figures in overall perspective: Over five million people have returned to Afghanistan since 2002. 4.3 million of those were assisted through UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation programme

Of the 4.3 million figure assisted by our organization, UNHCR, roughly half have gone to the central and eastern regions.

More specifically we can say that 1.1 million have come to Kabul province and the city and roughly 850,000 to the province of Nangarhar.

Our estimation is that this five million figure represents a roughly 20 per cent increase in the overall population of the country since 2002.

And if we take the city of Kabul itself, our estimate overall is that the population has increased three times over. We estimate that roughly it was 1.5 million at the end of 2001 and probably the figure is 4.5 to five million now.

An important statistic to keep in mind about that increase in Kabul's population is that we estimate that roughly 30 per cent of that can be attributed to the return of Afghans from Pakistan and Iran and other countries, but certainly not all.

I think it is very clear to everybody, that an increase in a population with a refugee return programme of that dimension would represent a very sharp challenge for even a Western industrialized country. We are certainly not aware, in recent history, of any country that has absorbed so many people in such a short time.

Obviously a return of that dimension does produce social and economic challenges, but overall our analysis is that the solidarity demonstrated by the Afghan population in reabsorbing these huge figures is remarkable and without precedent any where else.

I think we can divide the overall return movement into two phases roughly: the first one that took place between 2002-2005 – where the majority of people who returned were those who had left the country relatively recently and so their absorption was quite straightforward.

Since 2006, the return and particularly the reintegration challenges have become more difficult mainly because the majority of those involved have now been absent from the country for more than 20 years.

And indeed half of them have been born outside Afghanistan. So it is a very young population.

If we look at the key trends or the key factors behind this year's figure of 276,000 we would highlight three things:

Firstly, the rise globally in food and fuel prices which has had a very strong impact on the economy of Pakistan.

Secondly, the closure of an old, long-established and big refugee camp called Jalozai.

Thirdly, the changing security situation in Pakistan, particularly in North West Frontier province which certainly has had some influence on decisions about returning.

There are some general conclusions that we can draw from this year's movements, which might tell us how things could develop in future.

It is clear in the years to come that return and reintegration will become more challenging and the first factor of course is that Afghanistan's population has doubled since 1979, but the cultivatable area has remained the same.

So of course that leads to a great pressure on the availability of land and we have seen some evidence of that with the increase in spontaneous settlements both in rural provinces like Nangarhar and also in the cities. In order to create sufficient employment opportunities the economy has to grow at a quicker pace to absorb more workers in labour markets.

We would estimate that there are still roughly 2.78 million registered Afghans in Pakistan and Iran. We do believe that Afghans will continue to return home and hope very much that they will, but that I think it will depend on two main factors: clearly the economic opportunities that are here in Afghanistan and also present in the neighbouring countries, so people will have to choose; and secondly of course the security conditions. It is really to address these kinds of future challenges that the Government of Afghanistan and UNHCR decided to organize the international conference on return and reintegration that will take place in Kabul in a couple of weeks time.

Really the conference is an opportunity for the Government, countries of the region and donor countries, to come together and see how best repatriation and reintegration can be supported in the future – at what level and just as importantly how it can be made sustainable.

Perhaps the most important subject of discussion at this meeting will be looking at which provinces Afghans may return to in future and which sectors will be most important to concentrate on to enable their re-absorption, and which kinds of programmes and interventions will be needed to support that process.

Just a final concluding remark: this process will take many years. It is not going to happen in a short period. As I said earlier the challenges are quite complex and difficult and thus due account has to be taken by both the governments of the region and also the Government of Afghanistan and its international supporters.


RFE/RL: Could you please give us more details on the upcoming international conference? Where will it be held, who are the participants and what is your expectation from it?

UNHCR: Because we are co-organizing this with the Government of Afghanistan we would rather not give out too many details at this point. But there will be press releases and information provided quite shortly.

RADIO WATANDAR [translated from Dari]: It is said that the Government of Iran is not allowing thousands of Afghans to work in Iran. As a result they are forced to return. Has UNHCR spoken to the Iranian authorities about this issue?

UNHCR: First of all let’s be clear that UNHCR does not have a legal responsibility for Afghans or individuals of any other nationality entering other countries without documents and papers. We understand the economic pressure that causes movements of populations. We also understand the concern of the Iranian authorities about a large number of people entering their country illegally. We can say that one of the solutions of the problem of returning refugees and labour migration is that the employment opportunities and economic opportunities in Afghanistan are increased.

IRIN: Given the dwindling social economic opportunities and worsening security situation in Afghanistan do you think it is time to halt for a while the return to Afghanistan? Will you suggest that to the conference participants in Kabul?

UNHCR: The first response to that is that all repatriation is done on a voluntary basis. People take their decisions following their own assessments about whether they would be better off remaining where they are or choosing to come back to Afghanistan. And as I mentioned earlier, five million people have made the choice to come back. But your question also points of course to the challenges that are there.

We would never be in a position, nor is any government, to tell their citizens that they cannot come home whether the situation is difficult or not. It really is an individual decision for the families and the people to make for themselves. So certainly I don’t think there is any question of putting a halt on repatriation. That simply would not be practical.

SABAH TV [translated from Dari]: Could you elaborate a little bit more about the return of Afghans this year - the more than 270,000 people who have returned. Where have they gone basically and what are the challenges? And don’t you think that the ongoing repatriation programme that helps the people come back will further impose challenges and difficulties ahead on the Afghan Government?

UNHCR: I think we have already mentioned the key destinations: The eastern region is 170, 000 of which 115,000 have gone to Nangarhar province. To the central region we mentioned 47,000 people of which 33,000 went to Kabul province and city, and about 10,000 to Logar province. I can give you even more ldetail if you require as we have data down to district level as well.

As to the part of your question dealing with difficulties – yes of course, for the reason I mentioned earlier it is becoming more difficult. That is why we insist so strongly on the principle of voluntary return because we think that people are the best judge of where their interests lie. They have contacts with their relatives, with their friends and with their networks. And they are able to judge if they should come back or not based on their own assessment.

IRIB [translated from Dari]: One of the difficulties Afghans have faced is the social condition and lack of job opportunities. Do you think the international conference will somehow address the social economics and will pave the way for job opportunities for people who are returning?

UNHCR: One of the things that the Government of Afghanistan will do is to highlight the strategy for return and reintegration within the Afghan National Development Strategy. As you all know, the Afghanistan National Development strategy was presented to the international donor community in Paris in June and the donors have pledged in the order of US$21 billion towards that strategy. And we hope that the conference will draw attention to the requirements both technical and financial for the Government of Afghanistan and for the programs supporting the ANDS and how they can contribute to ensuring that Afghans can come back and settle sustainably in their home country.

FREELANCE JOURNALIST: I would like to ask you about the principal of voluntary returns – how much has that been challenged by the events of this year like, first the closure of camps and perhaps even the security? Also, if you could give us some details on the number of internally displaced persons, if you have, on the 235,000 people; are you including refugees who could not return to their original homes in that number and what are the different causes for the displacement?

UNHCR: On the first question of voluntary return, given the huge numbers that have characterised both the return programme and the presence of Afghans in the neighbouring countries, we are very satisfied that the principal of voluntary return is being respected. On the question of internal displacement – that is rather a complex question. I prefer to answer that on another occasion or you can approach us independently and we will provide you with an explanation. I think it is very important to remember that this refugee situation has gone on for nearly 30 years and the generosity, patience and tolerance of the neighbouring countries for this situation is really without parallel as far as I am aware.

AFGHAN VOICE [translated from Dari]: Some of the Afghans who repatriated went back to a number of neighbouring countries due to the lack of employment and security problems. If the situation continues as it is now, don't you think that many people will decide to go back?

UNHCR: As I said before future trends depend very much on these two factors: security and indeed economic opportunities. Part of our hope with this conference due to be held in Kabul soon is that we can collectively look at ways forward and how to enlarge the absorption capacity of the country. Otherwise, the situation that you described could increase certainly.

GMA [translated from Dari]: Does UNHCR have any estimated figure for those who have gone back [to other countries] after 2002 or couldn’t make it or were unable to go back to settle and then decided to go back? Do you have any figure about it?

UNHCR: No we don’t have any figures because there is really no way of collecting formally that information on many people for example travelling to Iran crossing the borders without passports and visas. So there is no official way of collecting that information. Similarly people crossing into Pakistan – but there is not an official figure for collecting that kind of data, but so far to say that the population movements are important.