Press Conference by Filippo Grandi Chief of Mission for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Thank you very much for this opportunity and thanks to Manuel for inviting me.

Maybe it is useful for you to have a very short recap about the situation of returnees, refugees and displaced people who are the people that my office- the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – works with in Afghanistan.

Yowl certainly recall that since the beginning of this phase of the repatriation operation in late 2001, two and a half years ago, about three million Afghans have returned to their homes either from abroad or from within Afghanistan, either assisted or not assisted.

Thetis quite an achievement that Afghanistan has been able to have in the past two and half years, thanks to the efforts of the government which we have tried to support. However, there is a lot of work to be done. We estimate (because figures are not very precise) that there must be at least another two and a half to three million Afghan people still abroad, most of them in Pakistan and Iran, the two main countries hosting Afghan refugees.

The group of internally displaced people (refugees who are inside Afghanistan if you wish) has been reduced considerably since 2001. We believe that at that point, there were well over one million people internally displaced; now, we think this number is well under 200,000, most in the south and some in the west, so the phenomenon has become much smaller, but is still there.

Inters of repatriation and return of refugees, this is the low season. It is still winter. People are coming in small numbers and as you know following the insecurity incidents that affected humanitarian and development operations at the end of last year, and in particular the incident in which one of our colleagues lost her life in Ghazni, we suspended assisted repatriation from Pakistan. We requested the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to provide firm assurances that security would be given to operations of repatriation. To do repatriation you have to be in the field- you have to be in places that we thought were insecure when we suspended.

We got some assurances – of course, we understand that security is a very complex undertaking and we hope that we will be able to resume repatriation from Pakistan at the beginning of the repatriation season which is in early March, but I cannot give you exactly a date and I cannot communicate exactly a decision yet.

So repatriation will hopefully continue this year. It will continue to be an important Programme – especially, as Manuel said, since this an election year, it is good that people go back to their homes. It is part of what the SRSG has termed “the creation of an environment conducive to a free and fair election” so we trust that we will continue to receive support for repatriation. Since you have heard a lot of figures, let me tell you that UNHCR alone needs 76 million USD. Altogether UNHCR needs 126 million USD to take care of repatriation and of refugees in Iran and Pakistan during this year. The Afghanistan portion (76 million) will be part of the national development budget of Afghanistan – hopefully- when it is approved for 1383 (Afghan year).

Ideally came here to say a few words to you about one of these programmes- the internally displaced people. As I told you, perhaps a bit less than200, 000 – let’s say 180,000 – internally displaced people are in six camp locations in Afghanistan (four in Kandahar province, one in Helmand province and one in Herat province). The bulk is in Kandahar province. Most of these displaced people are people that are displaced because they have lost their means of livelihood – you can almost call them socio-economic displaced people. Many of them are kimchi who have no more access to grazing land or have lost their livestock or in most cases both.

These people are mostly in the south. The government is working on a plan to help these people, to find a solution for these people, that we hope the government will present soon to the public and to donors for funding.

Smaller part of this group of IDPs of 180,000 (maybe 30, up to 40,000) is of a special nature. These people have fled from the northern, in particular northwestern provinces – most of them (although not all) at the fall of the Taliban regime. They are mostly (the vast majority) of Pashtun ethnic origin and as you know there are sizeable Pashtun communities in many areas of northern Afghanistan.

Many of them have gone back to most of the northeastern provinces. But there are still problems that affect the northwestern provinces and are obstacles to the return of these people. UNHCR and the Afghan government have devoted particular attention to this group trying to resolve/address these obstacles to their return and ensure that they can go back in safety in the next few months.

Thesis an important issue. President Karzai many times in his own speeches has said that the government has it as one of its main priorities to resolve the issue of displaced people – these are after all Afghan people that cannot go back to their homes and are in exile on Afghan soil, so it’s a big responsibility – recognized by the government – to help these people go home as soon as possible, but in safety of course, not just go home.

Mohave heard in the past from my colleagues here that UNHCR and UNAMA have supported the creation of the Return Commission. This is an informal commission, which is chaired by the Minister of Refugees and Repatriation (Minister Ansari) and includes not only the UN, but also the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the leaders of the main factions in the north: Junes, Jami at and Herb-e-What.

There turn Commission – especially its Working Group – has done a lot of work in visiting hundreds of districts especially in the northwest, to examine what are the main obstacles for the return of displaced people, and these finding have been presented to the leaders, to the government. There have been commitments in the past for these obstacles to be removed but frankly, I think little action took place last year.

Finally as we approached the Constitutional Loyal Jirga, UNHCR organized a visit by the leaders of displaced people (and also some refugees from Balochistan that belong to the same group) to President Karzai. They had a series of meeting in October last year; there were many talks between the government and the factions in the north, and during the Loyal Jirga – at the end of Loyal Jirga as a matter of fact – General Dictum, whose party (Junes) controls many of these areas, made a very solemn commitment – among other things that he would facilitate the return of all displaced people to provinces in the northwest.

We took it very literally. We initiated, soon after this commitment was made, a series of steps in order to launch again the effort to bring these people back. I went myself to the north last week and I spent a few days in Mazarin Farias, which is one of the provinces from which these people originate.

Icon tell you that I had been there about a year prior to my visit. I found the security situation improved. There is less factional fighting not least because some of factions control areas and there is less of a frontline crossing these provinces, but at least this has diminished factional fighting, thanks also the efforts of the central government, UNAMA, PRTs that are present in the areas.

Thesis important for civilians because at least they are not affected anymore by fighting as they were before. I think also abuses at communities and individuals including women – these abuses were committed in the past- have decreased in intensity although some still occur.

The problems that are still quite evident are: there is quite a lot of land occupation, especially land of people who have left – who have fled -and whose land has been occupied by others, especially by the local commanders- medium and low commanders that abuse their power by occupying the land of people who have left. Or improper use of land – the land that is normally devoted (I just give an example) to cultivation is now used for grazing and vice-versa.

So land problems are very prominent and we are doing some studies on that. And there is also illegal taxation – commanders basically obliging communities (not just Pashtun communities, but communities across the ethnic divide) to give a part of the benefit that they make from growing crops to these commanders. It is a very serious abuse. The Pashtun people themselves and the displaced people also claim that they would like to have more representation in the provincial and district institutions. They feel that they are cut off from the institutional levels.

So these are the main problems and claims of those who have fled. We organized also in the last few days a visit by a group of about 20 representative of the displaced people and some refugees in Balochistan. This group came from Farias province and represents about 15,000 displaced people and refugees.

They have just visited Farias. They went to Mazar, met with June’s representatives besides local authorities, UNAMA etc. and is travelling back to Kabul today. When they were in Maimana they issued a rather encouraging statement recognizing the improvements and stating that the environment is now conducive to at least negotiate the return – or the beginning of the return to the northwest (copies of the statement – not by UNHCR but by the representatives of internally displaced and refugees – are available for distribution).

The idea would be that when these people come here today or tomorrow, we will have a series of discussions with them and then together with them and the central government we will draw up a very concrete plan on steps tube taken to restart the effort to return these people back to their areas of origin – hopefully at least part of them before the elections, so that they can vote in their places of origin.

In conclusion: why is this very important? I think it is important because in the election year – as it was said before – it is important that in this country there are no situations that cause people or oblige people to live away from where they come from.

Of course we know that the economic situation and the social situation continue to be difficult, but we are talking about security problems and human rights, and these need to be addressed before the election takes place. It is a recognized issue of national unity, it is an issue of reconciliation where both sides – in a way – have to make efforts to come together and to restart living with each other again.

It’s important that other actors, developmental actors, not only UNHCR, but also other UN agencies and other bilateral agencies support these efforts, not just by funding the logistical return of people – this is the simplest part. But that once they are back in their areas, they support programmes that will enable these communities to live together in peace and harmony.

I close here.