U.N. pushes ambitious Afghan refugees plan

ISLAMABAD Wed Feb 1, 2012 12:12pm EST

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - More than $1 billion in international aid is needed to ensure that conditions are right for millions of Afghan refugees to return to their troubled homeland, the senior U.N. official for refugees said on Wednesday.

"I think there are problems of governance, there are problems of economic development, there are problems of security," United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told Reuters in an interview.

"What is important to recognize is that a lot of investment has been made in Afghanistan but that investment has not been concentrated in creating conditions for people to feel they can go back, for that return to be sustainable."

His words underscored the huge job that Afghanistan's Western backers still have to rebuild the country before foreign troops pull out in three years time.

Afghanistan's instability was highlighted by a secret U.S. military report leaked on Wednesday that indicated the Taliban were set to retake control after NATO forces withdraw.

Large swathes of Afghanistan have been handed back to Afghan forces, with the last foreign combat troops due to leave by the end of 2014. But many Afghans doubt their security forces will be able to take firm control.

The return of a large number of Afghan refugees would be a vote of confidence in President Hamid Karzai's government, widely seen as too corrupt and inept to protect the population.

About 1.7 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan, one million in Iran, and others sare cattered in more than 60 countries. An unknown number are unregistered.

Guterres said a new approach was needed to encourage refugees to return and ease the economic burden they pose on neighboring countries.

The new strategy, which will require more than $1.5 billion in funds, will be presented to an international conference in Switzerland in May.

But it was important to act now, he said.

"There are indications that eventual negotiations will start in the near future between parties to the conflict so let's hope this will lead to solutions in the future," Guterres said.

Most Afghan refugees in Pakistan arrived after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The conflict that followed consumed their homeland. After the mujahideen warriors defeated the Russians, warlords turned on each other and tore Afghanistan apart. Many fear a repeat of that chaos.

Even though they say they are mistreated in Pakistan, many Afghan refugees prefer humiliation to returning to one of the world's most unstable countries with struggling security forces.

Three years ago Pakistan agreed to let displaced Afghans stay until the end of 2012, after a resurgence of militant violence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border hindered repatriation.

Guterres said both Pakistan and Iran had expressed concerns about their capacity to keep accommodating Afghan refugees but he was satisfied they would not be forced to return against their will.

Still, he said comprehensive steps were needed to tackle the problem.

"It's basically land allocation - it's a crucial aspect - and then the basic infrastructure of education and health, and a minimum of conditions to allow people to be self-reliant and to generate their own income," he said.

(Created by Michael Georgy)