- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

The program to return refugees home to Afghanistan is either a great success or a potential disaster. As most of the fighting stopped in Afghanistan, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began helping the Afghan refugees return home. However, returns have gone much faster than UNHCR had expected or has funding to support.

Out of 3.6 million Afghan refugees and 500,000 displaced persons inside Afghanistan, UNHCR planned to return home 1.25 million in 2002. Already, 1.5 million Afghans have gone home, and the new planning figure for 2002 is 2 million. Estimates have almost doubled, but, of the $271 million originally requested by the UNHCR, only $201 million has been received.

In early June, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, Kris Janowski, warned, "If the pace continues, hundreds and thousands more could come in the fall and winter, but then turn around and go back to Pakistan." The press and nongovernmental organizations reported that water, food and medical attention were all on short rations. Refugees International warned that lack of reconstruction assistance could jeopardize the Afghan return. UNHCR reported shortages of critical shelter kits and noted many returnees were receiving only one-third of planned food rations.

Conditions worsened, and by June 26, World Food Program spokesman Khaled Mansour, deeply concerned with ration cuts, was reported saying, "Regretfully, we have to wait (sometimes) until we have walking skeletons before we get the money." On July 7, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers was reported by the London Guardian as warning that thousands of refugees could be put at peril if lack of shelter and adequate drinking water forced them to leave again, this time for more distant countries.

Others also expressed concern. Former High Commissioner Sadako Ogata told the U.N. Security Council on July 19 that the scale of return could overwhelm receiving communities with highly negative consequences. On July 23, Human Rights Watch warned against too rapid repatriation in the face of extremely unstable security conditions.

What's going on here? Despite cries of alarm, there is still no rush by donors to provide the needed funds, and no effort by UNHCR to slow the rapid return home of the Afghans. In fact, on July 16, UNHCR encouraged governments hosting Afghan refugees to offer assistance to all who wished to return home. Seemingly, UNHCR and the donor nations are having a dialogue of the deaf. It is already very late. Now both sides must wake up and act or the refugees will suffer.

Considering the attention being paid to Afghanistan by the international community and the importance to Afghanistan of a successful reintegration of the refugees, it is almost inconceivable that the situation could come to this point. While returns have been far greater than expected, donor contributions even to the original, lower appeal have fallen far short, especially from Europe. It is now truly urgent that donors come forward with the needed funds.

UNHCR must act to temporarily slow down the flow. Some argue that refugees should not be discouraged from returning home; that refugees know the facts and can judge the risk and, in any case, will return home on their own. While true in part, if refugees understand both the hardships that wait at home and the extreme shortage of international assistance, many will wait.

UNHCR should cease providing transport assistance. Potential returnees should be urgently counseled to delay their return until after winter. Refugees must know of the security and life-threatening economic conditions they will meet. They should be assured they will remain eligible for assistance and that assistance will be significantly greater if they wait a few months.

Reports indicate that the refugees are receiving serious pressures in Pakistan to return home, though not necessarily from official sources. UNHCR, the United States and others should press Pakistan to stop pressures on the refugees to return, including pressures from lower-level or quasi-official sources. While Pakistan is understandably anxious to have this burden lifted, it should recognize that an over-rapid and ultimately failed refugee-repatriation operation would not be in Pakistan's national interest. Other nations hosting Afghan refugees should prepare to assist their return, but actual returns should be put on hold until next spring.

A successful Afghan repatriation can be an important element in the reconstruction and stabilization of Afghanistan. But, if that return is allowed to fail, the international community will have missed an important opportunity and created a disaster.

Shep Lowman is director for policy at the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.

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