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Letter to UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers

Mr. Ruud Lubbers
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Geneva, Switzerland

Dear High Commissioner,

We welcome your current visit to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we very much hope that your visit will bring renewed international attention to the plight of the Afghan refugees.

We are greatly concerned, however, by reports that you are actively seeking a reassessment of the refugee status of up to 1.5 million Afghans currently residing in camps in Pakistan and their repatriation to Afghanistan, on the grounds that the Taliban have consolidated their control over much of Afghanistan, and that the civil war from which the refugees fled has now abated. Ironically, your statements have come at a time when Pakistani authorities are preventing UNHCR from registering new arrivals in the Jalozai camp - many of whom have fled fighting and conflict-related violence in northern Afghanistan - and have announced their intention to forcibly repatriate those who have not been recognized as refugees.

Our ongoing monitoring of conditions in Afghanistan indicates that the security situation in large parts of the country is in fact far from stable. In recent months, Taliban forces have lost significant territory in northeastern and north-central Afghanistan, and several areas are presently contested. On at least two occasions this year, Taliban forces have carried out large-scale summary executions of civilians in or near front-line areas, with apparent intent to punish perceived collaboration with the forces of the United Front.

Human Rights Watch has provided extensive documentation of one such case in Yakaolang district in January, in which Taliban forces systematically detained and summarily executed about 170 civilians, including Afghan humanitarian aid workers, after retaking the area from the United Front. A copy of our report is enclosed. In the past year, Taliban forces have shelled and bombarded civilian-populated areas in other parts of the north and forcibly relocated civilian populations. These tactics have contributed to massive internal displacement in Afghanistan and large-scale refugee flows into Pakistan since late 2000. Additionally, Human Rights Watch has received reports of rape which require further investigation.

For refugees originating from areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, the military conflict itself may be less of a concern, but other factors - including the Taliban's systematic and pervasive mistreatment of women - militate against their return. Refugee women and girls returning to Taliban-held territory face the prospect of severe restrictions on freedom of movement, right to work, access to education and access to health care. These restrictions have particularly devastating consequences in the context of the conflict and famine within Afghanistan. Many households are headed by widows who have no ability to support themselves or their children. We are deeply concerned that if refugees are being presented with the option to repatriate, women be given sufficient information on which to make informed decisions about whether to return to Afghanistan and that they understand the hardships they will face upon their return.

Affirmative measures by UNHCR would be necessary to ensure that any repatriation scheme under its auspices is consistent with international refugee standards. This would include establishing adequately staffed screening mechanisms in the host countries to determine whether refugees have a well-founded fear of persecution that precludes their return to Afghanistan. In addition, UNHCR should monitor the protection refugees receive once they return, which in turn would necessitate obtaining guarantees of access to those parts of Afghanistan to which refugees are repatriated.

As you are aware, according to UNHCR's 1996 Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation, there are several essential preconditions that must be met before UNHCR can promote voluntary repatriation. These include:

i) an overall, general improvement in the conditions in the country of origin that enable the large majority of the refugees to return in safety and with dignity
ii) all parties must be committed to fully respect the voluntary character of the repatriation
iii) the country of origin must provide a formal guarantee, or adequate assurances for the safety of repatriating refugees
iv) UNHCR must have free and unhindered access to refugees and returnees
v) The basic terms and conditions must be incorporated in a formal repatriation agreement between UNHCR and the authorities concerned

It is our view that at present none of these essential preconditions have been met. UNHCR's promotion of a repatriation scheme under the circumstances outlined above will not only raise the prospect of returning refugees to unstable conditions where they face an unacceptable risk of harm, or persecution on the basis of their gender, but may also provide cover to forcible repatriation schemes initiated by host states, in this instance, Pakistan.

We hope that in the course of your visit, you will call on the Pakistani authorities to respect their international obligations to protect the Afghan refugees, and under no circumstances to return them to Afghanistan where their lives and freedom could be seriously endangered.

Although Pakistan has not acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is still bound under international customary law to respect the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, and we urge you to remind the government of Pakistan of this obligation. In addition, we hope that you will be able to use this visit as an opportunity to negotiate for full and unimpeded UNHCR access to the refugees in Jalozai camp, so that UNHCR is able to register the refugees and conduct preliminary refugee status determination in order to prevent the forcible repatriation of newly arrived refugees back to Afghanistan.

We would be interested to receive any reports on your current trip and would be happy to keep you informed about human rights developments in Afghanistan.

Once again, we welcome your attention to this neglected refugee crisis.

Yours sincerely,

Rachael Reilly
Refugee Policy Director
Human Rights Watch
Sidney Jones
Executive Director, Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

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