BY ROHAN PEARCE
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should reverse its newly announced policy of promoting the voluntary repatriation of refugees to Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on July 23.
The UNHCR has advised governments hosting Afghan refugees to offer incentives and assistance to all who wish to return.
"By advocating repatriation, UNHCR is sending the message to governments that conditions in Afghanistan are sufficiently stable for a large-scale return", said Rachael Reilly, refugee policy director at HRW. "This is misleading and is contradicted by conditions on the ground."
Investigations by HRW in recent months have found that conditions inside Afghanistan are still extremely unstable and that the risk of persecution remains high. There is continuing factional rivalry in northern Afghanistan, leading to a rise in attacks on humanitarian aid agencies and Afghan civilians.
Ethnic Pashtuns, a minority in the north, continue to flee violence, rape, seizure of farmland and demands of money by local commanders. HRW has also documented lawlessness and abuses by warlord forces in the south and west of the country.
In previous statements, the UNHCR cautioned governments not to rush repatriation before conditions were stabilised in Afghanistan — in direct contrast to its most recent position. On July 2, UNHCR announced that it was suspending assisted returns from Herat to Faryab and Samangan provinces and to parts of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, because of continued insecurity. In May 2002, the UNHCR spokesperson in Kabul, Yusuf Hassan, called on governments not to put undue pressure on Afghanistan by prematurely promoting repatriation.
"UNHCR has itself admitted that conditions are unsafe in parts of Afghanistan. So why advocate for refugees to return now?", asked Reilly.
UNHCR has now suggested that if Afghans with pending asylum claims are encouraged to voluntarily repatriate, it would relieve the pressure on remaining asylum systems. HRW said this argument "plays into the hands of governments such as Australia and the United Kingdom that are already putting pressure on Afghan refugees to return."
From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.
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