The Refugee Council welcomes the Government programme to assist Afghan refugees wishing to return home and urges the Government to keep the programme 'absolutely voluntary'
Welcoming the Government proposals, announced today, for assisting Afghan refugees returning home voluntarily, the Refugee Council seeks assurances from the Government that it will learn the lessons from previous voluntary returns programmes and not place undue pressure on refugees to return home before they are ready. The Refugee Council would be concerned if the programme of financial assistance for returning refugees is limited to a period of six months at a time when the Afghanistan situation remains volatile. We urge the Government to review the programme at the end of the trial and to continue to assist those wanting to go home.
Margaret Lally, Deputy Chief Executive of the Refugee Council said:
"We welcome this trial initative and hope the Government properly reviews the situation at the end of the trial period. Our experience shows that programmes limited to short periods can place undue pressure on refugees to go home before they are ready and when the situation in their home country, as is the case with Afghanistan, is very unstable and insecure. The absolute bottom line is that returns must be voluntary. What the Government needs to do is remove obstacles to return. We strongly believe that the real way to help refugees to return to their own countries is by giving them time to weigh up their options and prepare themselves for going home. A long-term returns programme will build in momentum - people will be able to go home once they are ready, and will learn from the experiences of others who have returned earlier."
The Refugee Council urges the Government not to destabilise Afghanistan at this most delicate stage in its reconstruction. "We welcome the commitment that returns should be dignified and sustainable. In the case of Afghanistan where over a million refugees have already returned, real strain is being placed on housing, electricity, water and other resources. The Government must maintain its commitment to a viable and sustainable returns programme to complement international aid assistance to Afghanistan, which helps the country, not hinders it," Margaret Lally said.
The Refugee Council also reminds the Government that Afghanistan is still very unsafe for many refugees. Margaret Lally continued: "The complexities of the Afghanistan situation and the relationship between the various ethnic groups means the country will still be clearly unsafe for many individuals and especially women. All asylum claims must be considered on their individual merits and all humanitarian considerations taken into full account."
Notes to editors
1. The UN estimates that up to 400,000 refugees have entered Kabul over the past four months and notes that they "live in destitute conditions in makeshift shelters in abandoned buildings in the city, with little protection against the elements and with limited access to hygiene and potable water supply". (Afghanistan Monthly Review, BAAG, British Agencies Afghanistan Group, July 2002.
2. The Refugee Council's policy on voluntary repatriation programmes states: 'Voluntary repatriation programmes should be pursued only in the context of durable, humane and cost effective solutions. They should always offer the opportunity to "try and see" with the option of return to the UK.'
3. The Home Office's press release on the voluntary returns package for Afghans can be found on the website.