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Arrivals from Afghanistan Exceeding Arrivals from Syria as Returns Hit Historical Low, Secretary-General Tells Pakistan Conference on Hosting Afghan Refugees

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Pakistan
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UN SG
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SG/SM/19974

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the high-level segment of the International Conference on 40 Years of Hosting Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: A New Partnership for Solidarity, in Islamabad today:

As-salam alaikum.

We come together to recognize a remarkable story of solidarity and compassion. It is important to do so for many reasons, not least because it is a story that is sorely lacking in much of our world today.

For 40 years, the people of Afghanistan have faced successive crises. For 40 years, the people of Pakistan have responded with solidarity. That generosity now spans across decades and generations. This is the world’s largest protracted refugee situation in recorded history. This is also a story that is close to my heart.

In my previous life as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Pakistan was a familiar destination. During most of my period as High Commissioner, Pakistan was the number one refugee-hosting country on earth. For more than three out of every four years since 1979, either Pakistan or Iran have ranked as the world’s top refugee-hosting country. Even though major conflicts have since unfortunately erupted in other parts of the globe and the refugee population has soared, Pakistan today is still the world’s second largest refugee-hosting country.

On every visit here, I have been struck by extraordinary resilience, exceptional generosity and overwhelming compassion. I saw solidarity not just in words, but in deeds. This generous spirit is fully in line with what I regard as the most beautiful prescription for refugee protection in world history. It is found in the Surah Al-Tawbah of the Holy Qur’an: “And if anyone seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he can hear the words of God. Then escort him where he can be secure.”

This protection should be accorded to believers and non-believers alike in a remarkable example of tolerance many centuries ago before the 1951 Refugee Convention that defines in a modern concept the refugees and the protection they deserve. I saw that compassion play out in real time here in Pakistan. And it was grounded in vision.

We have seen many innovative policies take root here: biometric registration, access to the national education system, health care and inclusion in the economy. Despite Pakistan’s own challenges, these initiatives have made a big difference. Indeed, many have been recognized as a global model of good practice. Some of those progressive policies have inspired elements of the Global Compact on Refugees.

We have been proud to work with you to support Pakistani host communities and Afghan refugees. We have done so through integrated humanitarian and development actions across the country — alleviating the burden on Pakistan’s national public service system and helping Afghans sustainably reintegrate back home.

But we must recognize that international support for Pakistan has been minimal compared to your own national efforts. As we look to the challenges ahead, the global community must step up. On the one hand, we mark 40 unbroken years of solidarity. But we also despair at 40 broken years of hostility.

The Afghan conflict drags on and on — and we see the deep impact of the protracted nature of conflict, poverty and forced displacement. We know the solution lies in Afghanistan. I hope the signals of a possible pathway for peace will lead to a better future for the people of Afghanistan.

I see with us Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad. And I want to strongly encourage him to pursue the way of peace. And you can count, and the Afghan people can count, on the United Nations to support the efforts for peace. We don’t seek any protagonism. We are here only to serve the Afghan people [who] need and deserve, finally, peace and prosperity in full respect of their human rights.

I want to reaffirm that the preferred durable solution for refugees has always been voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity to their country of origin. This is also true for Afghan refugees. Our efforts on return and reintegration — led in large measure by UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) — are aligned with the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework.

We are working together on a region-specific support platform to assist voluntary repatriation and sustainable reintegration of refugees in Afghanistan, while providing help to refugees and their host communities in both Pakistan and Iran. Our aim is to galvanize more resources and more investments, widen the circle of partners and forge stronger linkages between humanitarian, development and peace investments.

Youth empowerment must be a special focus. We need a renewed commitment. We need to make sure that there is not only a strong movement for peace, but that peace leads to effective reconstruction, creating the conditions for a successful return and reintegration of Afghan refugees.

Working towards solutions for the Afghan people is not just a sign of solidarity; it is in the world’s best interest. Afghans now constitute the largest group of arrivals in Europe, exceeding for the first time the arrivals from Syria. Returns to Afghanistan, as we have said, have hit a historical low. Afghanistan and its people cannot be abandoned. Now is the time for the international community to act and deliver.

Our ability to succeed will be a litmus test for the Global Compact on Refugees — its promise of greater responsibility-sharing with countries that have shouldered the burden until now.

Peace efforts leading to intra-Afghan negotiations will pave the way, but sustainable peace and security hinges on better integrating our work on humanitarian, development and peace efforts. Done right, this work can be a model for the rest of the world.

We must be realistic. We know big challenges lie ahead. But the message of this conference — and the presence of so many senior Government officials from all over the world — is a testament of hope and commitment to a new partnership for solidarity and a better future for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan and for the world.

Shukriya.

For information media. Not an official record.