Press Conference by Goodwill Envoy for United Nations Refugees Agency

19 June 2012

Press Conference by Goodwill Envoy for United Nations Refugees Agency

19 June 2012
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Goodwill Envoy for United Nations Refugees Agency


Two gorgeous little girls of an Afghan family that had returned from foreign exile would have had a shining future if they were born in the developed world, an Afghan-born novelist and goodwill envoy for the United Nations refugees agency said today at a Headquarters’ press conference.

“They might have been models” if they were born elsewhere, said Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner, which has become an international bestseller since its release in 2003.  “Both had gorgeous blue eyes and striking blond hair.”

In reality, when he had seen them, the two girls were part of a family of returning Afghans who had to settle in a remote corner of a wind-blown, dusty, desolate plain, where there was nothing for miles except sky and more sand, he said.  They had nothing to play with except a rope their father had hung from a tree that was fashioned into a swing.  He had no job, and when he could find one, it was manual labour that paid him one to two dollars a day.

Mr. Hosseini’s press conference was part of the run-up to World Refugee Day on Wednesday, 20 June.  On Monday, UNHCR released the “Global Trends 2011” report detailing the extent of forced displacement from a string of major humanitarian crises that began in late 2010 in Côte d’Ivoire, and was quickly followed by others in Libya, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere.  Worldwide, 42.5 million people ended 2011 either as refugees, internally displaced or in the process of seeking asylum.

Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965, Mr. Hosseini came to the United States in 1980 as his family was granted political asylum.  In 2006, he was named Goodwill Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  His second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was published in 2007.  Inspired by a trip to Afghanistan he made in 2007 with UNHCR, he created The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghan people.

“As an asylum-seeker myself, I have always felt a personal connection to the plight of refugees around the world, especially those from my own birth country,” he said.  While he was involved in his studies, he watched from afar the tragedy unfold in Afghanistan, seeing the massive number of people fleeing the country and the refugee crisis growing into a full-blown humanitarian crisis.  He also lost family members to the war and had to restart his life in a new environment.  When UNHCR asked him to join in its effort to advocate for refugees, it was a “very natural fit”, he said.

Today, Afghanistan was a nation at a crossroads, still recovering from over 30 years of war, state collapse and human suffering on a massive scale, he said.  Over the last years since 2002, more than 5.7 million Afghans had returned home, most of them with assistance from UNHCR.  This had been the largest repatriation operation in the agency’s history.  It might seem strange that so many had come back to the country.  But, to him, it was not surprising, because the Afghan people were deeply united by a sense of patriotism and a sense of longing for their homeland.  “If you listen to contemporary Afghan music or read contemporary Afghan poetry, you will see that’s the theme that is frequently recurring,” he said.

But, with the rising level of insecurity, limited access to basic services and livelihood, there had been a steady decline of returns since 2008, he said.  Today, Afghans formed the largest refugee population in the world, as well as the largest group of asylum-seekers.  Around 2.7 million Afghans still lived in neighbouring countries, 1.7 million people in Pakistan and nearly a million in Iran.  And 80 per cent of these people had been in exile for decades or more. And half of them were born there.

Reintegrating returnees into the fabric of the Afghan society had been a challenge, because they were coming back to a country that ranked 181 out of 182 on the human development index, he said.  For a country with 36 per cent of the population living below poverty level, the return of millions of people was a huge burden, given strained resources.

During his visits to settlements in Afghanistan, refugees described their day-to-day challenges of trying to restart their lives in a country where basic services had collapsed.  An elderly person took him to what was essentially a hole in the ground, where a community had spent the last three winters and lost children every winter because of exposure to the freezing temperatures.

If returnees failed to resettle, they became internally displaced or left the country again, creating a big problem, he said.  As of April 2012, an estimated 427,000 had been identified as internally displaced persons (IPDs).  In 2012, another 150,000 was estimated to become IDPs, largely because of insecurity.

Asked about a practical way to help the situation improve, Mr. Hosseini said big projects had not trickled down to local villages.  The creation of an environment conducive to returnees, such as conditions for providing employment opportunities, food security and good quality of life, was necessary.

Mr. Hosseini was joined by Udo Janz, Director of UNHCR in New York, who answered questions of technical nature.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.