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A Renewed Global Commitment to Afghan Refugees

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This week, donor nations will convene in Kabul for the Return and Reintegration conference. The objective is to enhance efforts to reintegrate Afghan refugees in their homeland. The conference is a good reminder that the Afghan refugee situation, among the longest running and most complex in the world, is far from over.

The mass exodus of Afghans began during the war against the Soviet Union. Since then, for more than two decades and largely without sufficient international assistance, Iran and Pakistan have generously hosted millions of Afghan refugees who fled the violence back home.

Recently, however, both countries have shown signs of fatigue over the long presence of Afghan refugees on their territory and have increased pressure for Afghans to return. Since 2002, over five million Afghans have voluntarily returned home, the majority with assistance from UNHCR (the U.N. Refugee Agency). This year alone, UNHCR has helped some 270,000 refugees return home from Pakistan.

But repatriation patterns are changing. Increasingly, decisions to return are driven not by expectation of a better life in Afghanistan but by rising prices and insecurity of life in exile. Many of the repatriating refugees have encountered harsh realities as the earlier hopes of durable peace, reconstruction and development in Afghanistan have faltered. Upon returning, they end up in makeshift shelters in barren deserts where the elements are unforgiving and the resources few.

In northern Afghanistan last year, I met families of refugees who had spent the previous winter in underground shelters dug with their own hands. One village elder told me that that his community routinely expects to lose 10 to 15 children to exposure every winter. Clean, potable water is a luxury, a prized resource for which refugees must compete with the local population. Schools with trained teachers are either not available or too distant. The same is true of health clinics, meaning a routine, treatable illness can often prove fatal. Jobs are scarce, and when available, pay less than a dollar a day.

Some returning refugees gather their families and move to overpopulated urban centers like Kabul, where they live in squalor and face severe shortages in food, work, shelter and sanitation. High cost of living, starvation, disease and droughts drive some to cross the border back into Iran or Pakistan, where they are unwelcome and increasingly perceived as a burden. Many have become displaced internally as the Taliban insurgency has spread and the violence spiraled to a record pace.

With the widespread failure of harvests and rising food prices, a humanitarian crisis looms in Afghanistan this winter. There is no quick fix to this crisis. Whatever the solution, the Afghan government must be part of it. For the time being, however, the central government in Kabul and provincial authorities are overwhelmed with meeting the needs of a poor and war-weary population. The Afghan government lacks the capacity to effectively absorb the returning millions and has struggled greatly to provide refugees with security, livelihood and even basic services. The hopes of the refugees, therefore, rest largely on assistance from donor nations in the international community.

This past June in Paris, donors pledged nearly $21 billion to support the Afghan National Development Strategy. U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has vowed to bring global focus back on Afghanistan. That is an important first step and an encouraging development for Afghanistan. However, I hope that this apparent renewed commitment extends far beyond the mere bolstering of coalition forces.

What the Afghan people -- and most urgently the returning refugees -- need is international attention to long-neglected and serious failures in the civil sector: addressing widespread unemployment and poverty, providing access to health and educational facilities, rebuilding infrastructure, meeting food and clean water shortages, curbing corruption, building a competent and legitimate police force that will provide security and protect its people, and investing in long-term social programs.

Today, roughly three million Afghan refugees live in Iran and Pakistan, almost half of them born in exile. They remain reluctant and fearful to return home. The challenge at hand, however, lies not in sending the refugees home but in keeping them there. Existing conditions in Afghanistan must be remedied to ensure a safe, sustained and durable return for the refugees. This will take time. As a good friend from UNHCR recently told me, "It will not be a hundred-meter dash, but a marathon."

The plight of Afghan refugees will continue to test the will and commitment of donor countries. It is a test that, I hope, they are willing to take on.

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