Dr. Benita Ferrero-Waldner
Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy
Afghan Refugees: Working for Durable Regional SolutionsStrategic Consultations on Refugees and Population Movements to and from Afghanistan - Joint conference of the European Commission and UNHCR
Brussels, 16 February 2005
High Commissioner Lubbers,
Deputy Minister Khoshroo,
Ladies and gentlemen!
I am glad to have the opportunity to address you at the conclusion of what I understand has been a productive discussion. I am sure that your journey to Brussels - and for some delegations this journey has been a long one - has been worthwhile.
For many years, the idea that Afghanistan would be on the path of reconstruction and development seemed a distant dream. Although great challenges remain, Afghanistan has made remarkable progress along the road towards peace, stability and prosperity - particularly when we consider the point of departure in late 2001.
Afghanistan is resuming its rightful place as a sovereign country and as a constructive participant in the international and regional community. Long-held suspicions in the region are giving way to trust and mutual confidence. Economic, trade, and commercial relations with its neighbours are growing rapidly. It is my firm belief that the people-to-people contacts and cross-border population movements are generally playing a positive role in this strengthening of ties.
No sign of confidence in a country's future could be more compelling than the return of its citizens and their participation in last October's successful Presidential election. Here I pay tribute to the people of Afghanistan for their great courage and determination.
I pay tribute also to the generosity of the people of Pakistan and Iran whose solidarity towards such huge numbers of Afghans has been exemplary. The recent elections were a good example of this co-operation with refugees residing in Pakistan and Iran being able to vote in large numbers. The response to the election demonstrated that the Afghan people - wherever they are residing - are one political community, sharing and having a stake in a common future.
I should like also to commend our partners in UNHCR for their long engagement with Afghans for over a quarter of a century. It is fitting that UNHCR, having received so many Afghan refugees in such huge numbers, should now be assisting them to return. The European Commission is strongly committed to maintaining a very close co-operation with UNHCR and only yesterday Mr Lubbers and myself signed an agreement for continued cooperation between the European Commission and UNHCR. Together we will continue to look for comprehensive solutions to the question of Afghan displacement and migration. Underpinning our approach will be a need to ensure the conditions exist for sustainable returns. The areas to which refugees return have to be properly provided with basic amenities as well as the means for making a livelihood. I will return to this point in a moment.
Throughout this meeting, you have been grappling with difficult and complex issues:
- How can we deal with the legacy of the huge population displacements from Afghanistan, which have had a particular impact in Iran and Pakistan?
- What is a realistic expectation in terms of the end-point for refugee returns, at the end of the assisted voluntary repatriation process?
- Is it realistic to expect UNHCR to remain "until the last Afghan returns home"?
- What should be the future framework for managing population movements and displacement between these neighbouring countries after the forthcoming expiry of the tripartite agreements?
- What are the responsibilities of the countries concerned in this regard?
- And last but not least, how can the donor community contribute to a comprehensive solution?
I believe the key to progress is to discuss these complex issues in a spirit of partnership and of openness.
Let's speak first about partnership. I think we already have a solid foundation to build on. This meeting has been co-hosted by the European Commission and UNHCR. It has brought together the three governments from the region, the wider donor community, as well as various other international actors involved in dealing with migration, asylum and economic development. This broad participation illustrates the partnerships which are already in place. The key now is to harness these partnerships to the changing context.
Secondly, let's turn to openness. I understand that the governments present have been very clear about their position and their expectations regarding international support. I hope that UNHCR and the donors have been equally clear in communicating to the governments if their positions and expectations are realistic and achievable or whether some adjustment is required.
Ladies and Gentlemen!
The European Commission has been engaged with Afghanistan as a major donor of humanitarian aid throughout the difficult years of the 1990s. A significant part of this EC effort has been the €337 million which has been channelled through EC Humanitarian Aid Office since 1992. The priorities for this humanitarian assistance have been to address the acute needs of refugees and internally displaced populations over the last decade. As well as immediate life-saving measures, EC assistance has also provided the initial means for achieving sustainable livelihoods in impoverished communities. Activities have focused on a range of rural and community based activities: water and sanitation works; primary health care; food- and cash-for-work programmes.
Like other donors gathered here, we are now deeply engaged in supporting the reconstruction and development process: the EC is well on track to deliver our Tokyo pledge of €1 billion of reconstruction assistance over the period from 2002-2006.
And like other donors, we are also working hard at making the transition from humanitarian relief to rehabilitation and development. Supporting refugee returns and making them sustainable is a crucial part of this process, and we are committed to continuing this in the future.
In this vein, rural development and food security stand at the heart of our current assistance. Over the last 2 years, some €100 million has been allocated to tackle rural poverty through local infrastructure provision, improvement in access to local markets, and promotion of women's participation in the rural economy. Moreover, we have channelled resources into improvement of basic health care, particularly in the poorer rural areas, where infant and maternal mortality rates have been alarmingly high.
Such development programmes are fundamental for ensuring that returning refugees can lay the foundations for a new life.
For the future, it is clear that Afghanistan's economic development will depend on the progressive strengthening of a functioning state. The rule of law and effective government must be ensured throughout the country. Assisting in this process will be a cornerstone of future EC development assistance. But in parallel to this process, one key element remains rural development. We should address the whole range of factors that affect the farming community's ability to earn a sustainable living away from poppy cultivation. Bearing in mind that 80% of Afghanistan's population live in rural areas, the rural economy must be a priority for future development programmes. It is also, ultimately, the key to achieving successful, sustainable returns of refugees. The European Commission is aware of the problem of poppy growing in Afghanistan and intends to help the Afghan Government to address this serious issue.
I am also convinced that the broader challenge of displaced people and population movements has to be managed as part of regional and bilateral relations, not just within a refugee framework. And whilst international assistance will still play an important if perhaps more targeted role in future - responsibility for managing these challenges surely lies most appropriately with the governments concerned.
In today's globalised world, population mobility is a challenge for all states. It is not just a humanitarian problem. We do need to tackle these issues with all the instruments at our disposal - political, diplomatic, economic, and commercial - in a more integrated fashion to enhance regional stability.
Today's discussions were intended to assist in designing such a comprehensive framework. And I believe that by continuing these discussions in a spirit of partnership and openness, we can make further progress towards an integrated solution which will serve the interests of Afghanistan and its neighbours.
To conclude, I would hope that the European construction could be a kind of inspiration for the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
Thank you for your attention.