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Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests,

It is a pleasure to be here. I would like to commend the National Defense University for organizing this Seminar on an issue of great importance for Pakistan, and of particular relevance in the current regional and international scenario.

It is timely and right to deliberate over the Afghan refugee situation that still remains the world’s largest protracted crisis, even after 38 years, as we prepare for the World Humanitarian Summit to be held in Istanbul next month.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There are many aspects to the topic, and I am sure you would have examined these in your discussions.

First, the refugee issue cannot be separated from the broader Pak-Afghan relationship, which is characterized by shared bonds of history and culture. It is these bonds of brotherhood that provide the impetus for hosting millions of Afghan refugees for so long, despite global indifference and donor fatigue.

Second, it has to be seen in the context of the evolving situation in Afghanistan.

Third, the role and responsibility of the international community and the UNHCR needs to be examined.

Fourth, the evolving global humanitarian situation, in the wake of recent crises in several parts of the world, especially the Middle East should be factored in.

From the perspective of Pakistan, the key elements of this debate include the immense socio-economic, environmental, political and security consequences associated with the hosting of millions of Afghan refugees for decades. For us, the fundamental priority is their early return and reintegration in Afghanistan, for which we have worked and continue to work closely with the Government of Afghanistan, UNHCR and other relevant players.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Positive developments in Afghanistan have given us hope, and a window of opportunity, to seek a durable solution for the prolonged refugee crisis in the region.

There is increased stability in Afghanistan, particularly in the wake of the successful political transition, and gradual transfer of the security responsibilities from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), to the Afghan national forces.

At the same time, there is broad consensus in Afghanistan, supported by the international partners, that reconciliation offers the best way to achieve durable peace and stability, and it must be given a chance. Pakistan fully supports this objective, and as you are aware, we are contributing to this effort to the best of our ability, as a member of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QGC) on Afghanistan. This is in keeping with our firm belief that peace in Afghanistan is essential for peace and stability in the region, and to enable both Afghanistan and Pakistan to fully exploit the economic and development potential of their strategic geographic locations.

Afghanistan continues to face numerous challenges. Let me reiterate our condemnation in the strongest possible terms of the dastardly terrorist act of 19th April in Kabul, that resulted in the loss of numerous precious lives and injured many more. The Prime Minister of Pakistan in his condolence messages to President Ashraf Ghani and the Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, expressed his sympathies with the victims of this attack, which he strongly condemned.

Notwithstanding some challenges, there is growing cordiality in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This has also contributed to increased engagement between the two countries, including on the issue for refugees. As you are aware, the Afghan Minister of Refugees and Repatriation, Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi was in Islamabad last week, for discussion on the issue.

Enhanced stability has given the Afghan government the confidence to take ownership of integrating the returnees in the national development plans. Provision of basic services, employment opportunities, and land titles catered exclusively for returnees in the National Development Plans, can help achieve the desired results.

These factors serve to strengthen the belief that the time has come for repatriation of the refugees so that they should become active contributors to Afghanistan’s national rebuilding process.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There are, however, some key challenges in the way of early return and repatriation of Afghan refugees.

Unfortunately, the refugee return figures have remained significantly low during recent years. 2014 marked the lowest returns with a mere figure of around 13000 returnees. While the returns picked up somewhat in 2015, efforts were hampered by many factors, including the lack of resources.

The Enhanced Voluntary Return and Reintegration Package (EVRRP) for Afghan refugees in Pakistan was an important tool launched recently by consensus, but it has struggled to get donor attention.

If we take into account the new births among the refugee population, the net rate of return of Afghan refugees is negative. This must be a cause of concern.

There is a perennial lack of interest by the international community in the Afghan refugee situation. There are no international mechanisms for burden sharing. This aggravates our problems.

Let me highlight that more than half of 20 million global refugees today originate from just three countries – Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Sadly, the burden of hosting these refugees is disproportionately placed on developing countries, whose economies dwarf in comparison to the more affluent and developed countries, that have decided to close borders, or impose limits on the numbers they can take.

Presently, a big chunk of humanitarian aid and financial assistance is being diverted towards the crisis in Europe, at the expense of neglecting other refugee situations.

This has also adversely impacted the Afghan refugee situation. Despite the presence of a large number of Afghan refugees, the international assistance budget for Afghan refugees in Pakistan is a tiny fraction compared to refugee situations in other parts of the world. In fact, the budget for UNHCR’s operations in Pakistan has been reduced twice, during the past two years.

Besides, the European pushback policy for asylum-seekers is shifting the burden to countries like Pakistan. Only around 10,000 Afghans from Pakistan have been resettled abroad in the past 15 years.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On our part, we have tried to rejuvenate this issue, and to ensure that it is not neglected. Several efforts have been undertaken in this regard:

1. A High-level Segment on Afghan refugee situation was held in Geneva, Switzerland in October last year, with the active support of UNHCR. However, disappointingly, no tangible support has been forthcoming.

2. We have persistently raised this issue with key global leaders, urging them to prioritize and support efforts for early repatriation of Afghan refugees.

3. We have raised the matter with the UN Secretary-General and his senior aides. Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs has recently written a letter to the UN Secretary General, expressing our legitimate expectation that the issue of Afghan refugees would be accorded the importance it deserves and that it should be high on the agenda of the upcoming humanitarian events this year.

The Government of Pakistan believes that search for a realistic solution must take into account various factors.

First, it requires ownership and responsibility to create conducive environment and pull factors in Afghanistan.

Second, lack of capacity issues should not be used as a policy tool to further delay the returns, in a situation that has become protracted.

Third, the relative improvement in the security situation in Afghanistan, must be factored in.

Fourth, proposals for granting temporary alternative stay arrangements to refugees are not feasible, due to Pakistan’s own socio-economic problems.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

To sum up, I see the following as broad contours of our policy for the future:

Voluntary repatriation is the only viable and sustainable solution. It will have a positive impact on the overall stability and development of Afghanistan and the region.
The UNHCR and the international community need to support Afghanistan through tangible and concrete means and resources.
In the period until refugees are fully repatriated, the international community must provide relief and support to Pakistan in the form of development assistance to offset stress on our national resources.

If the past is the right guide, the world must come to understand that neglect and hands-off policy will not work in the case of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Only a proactive approach can help us seize the window of opportunity while it is still open. We must do it now.

I thank you

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