Lubbers warns against speeding up refugee returns to Afghanistan

Kabul, January 17, 2005 - Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees will likely return home this year, but the pace of returns should not be speeded up, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said at the end of his four-day visit to Afghanistan.

After a meeting with H.E. President Hamid Karzai to discuss the need for long-term solutions to the Afghan refugee situation, Lubbers said the rate of return in 2004 was "correct and appropriate." Last year some 760,000 Afghans returned, mostly from Pakistan and Iran.

More than 3.5 million Afghans have returned to their homes since UNHCR began its voluntary repatriation program in 2002.

Lubbers said the repatriation from Iran, as well as Pakistan, is governed by a tripartite agreement which is based on the principle that all returns must be voluntary. Talks are currently ongoing with the Iranian authorities on this issue, and UNHCR hopes that these discussions will lead to the renewal of the tripartite agreement when the current one expires in March.

Lubbers and H.E. President Hamid Karzai also discussed whether Afghan refugees would be able to take part in upcoming parliamentary elections.

"I was pleased that Afghan refugees were able to vote in last year's presidential elections," Lubbers said. "The parliamentary elections will be a far more complicated exercise and we need to look at all the dimensions regarding the participation of refugees."

Within Afghanistan UNHCR supports the reintegration of returnees through a number of programs. With assistance from UNHCR and its partners, more than 170,000 homes across Afghanistan have been rebuilt since 2002 and some 8,000 wells or water points have been established in areas of high return.

In places where the return of significant numbers of returnees has created tensions or disputes UNHCR has launched coexistence initiatives which promote dialogue, inclusion and mutual understanding.

The repatriation of more than three million Afghans since 2002 represents UNHCR's largest operation in its 53-year history. Throughout his visit to Afghanistan - his sixth since being appointed High Commissioner four years ago - Ruud Lubbers praised the results achieved so far, while highlighting the challenges that remain.