Minister disputes call to boost refugee returns

The Afghan Minister of Refugees and Returnees, Shir Mohammad Etibari, has rejected calls by the head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to boost the repatriation of Afghan refugees.

Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, was quoted as calling for more Afghan refugees to return home, particularly from Iran.

"[I]t is very important to commit the Afghan government and to commit the international community to strongly invest in Afghanistan to create the conditions for these voluntary repatriations to be able to pick up again," Guterres reportedly told a news conference at the end of his visit to Tehran on 6 September.

But Etibari said his government did not have the capacity or resources to facilitate basic services to encourage refugees to return.

"We don't have the means to provide an encouraging environment for refugees to repatriate," Etibari told IRIN on 7 September.

Etibari criticised international donors and UN agencies for not doing enough to enable the government to provide a sustainable solution to the Afghan refugee crisis.

"They only make promises but do little," he said.

Virtual halt in returns

More than five million Afghans migrated, mostly to Pakistan and Iran, over the past 26 years of recurring conflict, according to aid agencies.

In the immediate years after the ouster of the Taliban (2002-2005) millions returned home.

About 4.3 million refugees have returned since 2002 (3.46 million from Pakistan and up to 860,000 from Iran), UNHCR said.

Photo: Akmal Dawi/ IRIN
The return rate of Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan has dropped significantly in 2008

However, return rates started plummeting in 2006 as security deteriorated, largely due to a resurgent Taliban.

Meanwhile, aid agencies and the government point to poor socio-economic conditions, high unemployment and the lack of basic services as discouraging refugees from returning.

As a result, the repatriation drive virtually halted in September, particularly from Iran.

UNHCR statistics show that only 242 Afghan refugees returned home from Iran in August 2008, against 63,000 in August 2002.

Return rates from Pakistan have also slumped significantly from 140,000 in August 2002 to 38,000 in August 2008, UNHCR said.

The agency says more than two million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan and up to a million in Iran.

In addition, a substantial number of Afghans live and work in both countries. They are not considered refugees and are widely described as "economic migrants".