New Afghan exodus looms

A fresh exodus of Afghan refugees could be triggered as early as next month if the United Nations agency assisting in their resettlement runs out of funds and is forced to suspend its aid programme, Western donor nations are being warned.

In his starkest description yet of his organisation’s financial crisis, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said this week that thousands of refugees could be put in peril if lack of shelter and adequate drinking water in their war-damaged villages and towns forced them to leave Afghanistan again, this time for more distant countries.

Lubbers is hoping the British government will find about £6,2-million towards helping make good a total shortfall of £50-million.

The crisis has been precipitated by the return home of more than 1,1-million Afghan refugees since March, a far higher figure than anticipated. Families heading back to their home villages receive a UNHCR kit, containing blankets, tarpaulins, buckets, tools and other supplies.

Lack of funds has already forced the agency to reduce the amounts of construction materials it hoped to supply.

Lubbers said the UNHCR’s return and resettlement programme would shortly run out of resources. ”If we don’t get money we will stop in August. We will have spent [all we have received].”

More resources were needed to help returning refugees rebuild their damaged homes, as otherwise they would leave the region altogether. ”There has to be a sustainable return otherwise it becomes a revolving door and they go out again.”

The UNHCR has become a financial victim of its own success in Afghanistan.

It anticipated spending $271-million to help arrange the repatriation of 1,2-million people but now expects that about two million Afghans will have returned by the beginning of winter in October. The agency has not yet received all of the original budget.

”There are no reserves … We still need $75-million in the coming three to four months … this is absolutely the minimum. We have to close the gap,” Lubbers said.

He pointed out that at the end of last year British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke about the need for a humanitarian operation to run alongside the military operation. ”The military operation is fantastic — the Taliban is no more. Now it’s victory and the Afghans and their children can go home. We are now on the spot to do some first steps in reintegration, [to arrange] shelter, and to make sure they are provided with wells for drinking water.”

A conference of donor nations in the Afghan support group was due to take place later this week in Geneva. After the international reconstruction conference, held in Tokyo earlier this year, Britain pledged to give £200-million to Afghanistan over the next five years.

Since September 11 last year, the British government has spent £60-million to help Afghanistan, of which £36-million has gone to various UN agencies including the UNHCR. More than one million of the Afghans who have returned home came from overcrowded border camps in neighbouring Pakistan, with a much smaller number from Iran and Tajikistan.

At the beginning of the year there were estimated to be 3,7-million Afghans in refugee camps in countries surrounding Afghanistan, driven from their homes by war and four years of drought.

They imposed a heavy financial burden and a potentially destabilising influence on poor neighbouring states who relied heavily on international agencies to feed them.

The US has paid $67-million to help Afghan refugees return home, about a quarter of the UNHCR’s programme budget. At the current rate of returns, Afghanistan is likely to break the record for the largest repatriation in a single year.

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Owen Bowcott
Owen Bowcott works from London. Owen is a correspondent for the Guardian based in London. He is formerly the Guardian's Ireland correspondent and also worked on the foreign newsdesk. Owen Bowcott has over 4364 followers on Twitter.

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