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Election 'critical' for refugees

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezJune 30, 2014

Asia hosts one third of the world's refugees and, of these, 70 percent are Afghans. The UNHCR's Babar Baloch tells DW a peaceful transition of power is imperative for these refugees to return home after decades in exile.

Afghan refugees enter Pakistan across the Torkham border carrying their meagre belongings 03 November 2000 (Photo: TANVEER MUGHAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Tanveer Mughal/AFP/Getty Images)

Of the estimated 3.5 million refugees currently living in Asia, 2.4 million, or 70 percent, are Afghans - including an estimated 600,000 internally displaced people - according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most of them have headed to neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran to seek refuge from the almost continuous cycle of violence that has engulfed Afghanistan over the past three decades.

2014 is a key transition year for Afghanistan. Not only are foreign troops set to pull out over the coming months, but the country is also in the middle of presidential elections which have been overshadowed by accusations of widespread fraud.

Babar Baloch, communications officer at UNHCR, says in a DW interview he hopes the Afghan elections will result in the formation of a new government which will create an opportunity for stability which will enable Afghan refugees to return to their country.

DW: About a third of the world's refugees reside in Asia, what are the main reasons behind this?

Babar Baloch: Asia has been dealing with displacement issues for decades now. It is both the world's largest refugee producing and hosting region. In terms of numbers, Afghanistan is the top producer of refugees with around 2.4 million refugees, living mostly in Pakistan and Iran. Myanmar moved from seventh to sixth place amongst the largest producers of refugees, seeking safety in Bangladesh (230,000), in Thailand (140,000) and in Malaysia (92,000).

Babar BALOCH, Communications Officer of UNHCR
Baloch: 'Generations of Afghans have been born and raised while being refugees in other countries'Image: UNHCR

Which are the main recipient countries of refugees in Asia?

The recently released UNHCR Global Trends report reflects that 86 percent of the refugees prefer to remain in the neighbouring countries, meaning 9 out of 10 want to stay closer to home hoping one day they can return when the situation allows. The world's largest refugee hosts are in Asia with Pakistan hosting around 1.6 million Afghan refugees and Iran being home to nearly a million refugees for decades. Other major hosts include Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Australia.

Under what sort of conditions do refugees live in recipient countries?

Refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons should be able to enjoy all the rights and freedoms that people would have in any country and should have access to all services. However, conditions could differ from country to country. As a refugee, rebuilding one's life is often a challenge. Countries like Pakistan and Iran have been generous hosts to refugees for over 35 years now, allowing refugees to access education, health, and job markets.

How urgent is the refugee situation in Afghanistan?

Today, with over 2.4 million refugees, Afghanistan has been facing a refugee situation for over three decades. Generations of Afghans have been born and raised while being refugees in other countries. There have been some positive developments in last twelve years.

Some six million Afghan refugees have been able to return home and start rebuilding their lives. However, the situation remains fragile in the country as conflict is still displacing people inside Afghanistan and to other countries. UNHCR hopes that the recent presidential elections will bring the long desired peace that all Afghans want to see.

Why are so many Afghan refugees refusing to return home after so many years?

Afghan voluntary returns saw an exceptional momentum in the years following 2001 after the downfall of the Taliban. I personally witnessed long truck convoys of Afghan refugees returning home from different locations of Pakistan. Only in 2002, some 1.8 million Afghans returned home with UNHCR assistance and spontaneously.

With over six million returning in total - majority from Pakistan and Iran, we see a sharp decline in numbers linked to continuous instability in Afghanistan, with lack of access basic services and the country's capacity to accommodate those returning. As returns are voluntary, an Afghan refugee has to decide the best timing to return home.

What can these people expect when they return to Afghanistan?

Returnees make over 20 percent of Afghanistan's population today. Those who have returned to major cities and towns find it easier to reintegrate than those who went to far-flung villages or remote areas. People have been faced with issues of rebuilding houses, insecurity, access to land and basic services and lack of employment.

What must the international community do to tackle the issue?

The international community needs to remain engaged with the Afghans inside Afghanistan and with the major hosting countries like Pakistan and Iran that have been generous hosts to millions of Afghan refugees.

Inside Afghanistan and within the region, humanitarian and development needs are still enormous and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Development actors must invest in Afghanistan's reconstruction, and give its population a chance to shape and own their future.

What role will the outcome of the Afghan election play in this?

We hope that Afghan elections will result in the formation of a new government by August this year. This creates a unique and critical opportunity for stability, hope and reconstruction in Afghanistan, enabling Afghan refugees to return home and make a real contribution to their country's recovery.

Anschlag Wahlkommission in Kabul 25.03.2014
"Given the volatile regional geopolitical climate the implications of abandoning Afghanistan at this critical juncture will be far-reaching," says BalochImage: DW/H. Sirat

Given the volatile regional geopolitical climate the implications of abandoning Afghanistan at this critical juncture will be far-reaching. Not making this timely investment in enabling Afghans to return and rebuild their lives could perpetuate a chronic cycle of displacement, violence and instability in Afghanistan and beyond.

Babar Baloch is communications officer at UN refugee agency, UNHCR.