UN Human Rights Field Operation must keep investigative role

20 years after the 1979 Soviet invasion in support of the communist regime in Afghanistan, and 10 years after the withdrawal of the last Soviet soldier in 1989, Afghanistan is still a country in which an armed conflict over power between opposing political factions continues. Afghanistan has in the process been devastated, producing the world's largest ever single refugee case-load, at times as high as 6.2 million persons.

Nevertheless, by 1 January 1999 – a decade after repatriation to Afghanistan began – a total of 4.2 million Afghan refugees had returned home. Of these, well over 3 million have either been assisted by UNHCR (2.6 million) or individually counted while crossing the border with their household belongings. Repatriation peaked in 1992, after the communist regime finally fell, with 1.6 million refugees returning home from Pakistan and Iran in the space of 8 months. Throughout the following years – while a bitter struggle over power between the various mujahedeen groups ensued – refugees have been returning in large numbers, mainly to safe rural areas of Afghanistan. In 1998, UNHCR assisted about 107,000 refugees to return to Afghanistan, of whom 93,000 returned from Pakistan and 14,000 from Iran.

While this is probably the largest ever repatriation of a single group, more than 2.6 million refugees still live in exile, giving the Afghans also the unfortunate distinction of remaining the largest single refugee group in the world, for the 19th year in succession.

In late 1997, UNHCR instituted a new strategy known as targeted group repatriation, from Pakistan, which runs parallel to the continuing standard repatriation assistance (transportation assistance, grants of cash and wheat) for individual families returning home to Afghanistan. The new scheme involves identifying refugee groups in Pakistan (sometimes from a single village, sometimes an entire district) who are keen to return home to relatively peaceful areas, but who are prevented from doing so by specific obstacles such as mines, destroyed houses, lack of irrigation systems and employment opportunities. Problems are evaluated and UNHCR, together with other UN agencies and NGOs, then designs a reintegration assistance package for a particular group to overcome their obstacles in returning. Feedback from refugees was very positive, and by 1 November 1998 a total of 28 convoys had repatriated 16,462 refugees from 16 different groups. Many more groups had expressed interest in returning under this scheme, when the withdrawal of UN international staff and a lack of funds for UNHCR's programmes in Afghanistan resulted in its suspension in late 1998.

Early in 1998, UNHCR launched a new returnee monitoring system that aims to evaluate systematically the situation of returnees inside Afghanistan by means of interviews with heads of returnee families. The monitoring surveys now form the basis for UNHCR's interventions – both to protect returnees and their human rights, and to assist them during the initial reintegration phase. UNHCR was very encouraged to find that 84% of returnees reported feeling safe, and had not experienced problems either with landmines or other personal security issues. Equally positive is the fact that a majority of returnees were able to recover their land and/or houses without difficulty. This is particularly noteworthy in light of the fact that 59% of the returnees interviewed had returned after more then 10 years of exile in Pakistan or Iran, and 30% had spent between 16 and 20 years abroad. On the negative side, the surveys produced alarming findings about returnees' access to health and education facilities. Only 58% of those interviewed said there were health facilities located within a reasonable distance from their place of return. Equally worrying is the fact that 82% of school-age returnee children do not go to school, even though many of the children attended schools while they were in exile and their families would like them to continue their education. The main reasons invoked for non-attendance were: the absence of schools; economic factors which require children to contribute to the income of the family; and the restrictive policy of the Taliban, which controls most of Afghanistan, with regard to girls' education.

UNHCR's main assistance interventions in Afghanistan, in cooperation with other UN agencies and NGOs – and now under the UN's Common Programming in Afghanistan – are to provide shelter assistance to returnee families, to assist in rehabilitating community facilities for safe drinking water, and to rehabilitate irrigation systems and health and education facilities. UNHCR's budget for Afghanistan in 1999 – as part of the Common UN Appeal for Afghanistan – is $17 million.

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