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Iraq Could Overshadow Afghan Refugee Needs: UN

Attention On Iraq Could Overshadow Afghan Refugee Needs, Un Official Warns

The world's preoccupation with Iraq could take much-needed attention away from Afghanistan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, warned today, urging the international community to continue helping Afghans to return to their shattered country.

The High Commissioner, who left this morning for Kabul to begin a 10-day mission to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, said Afghanistan must remain a priority and that ensuring sustainable returns of refugees and the displaced would contribute to long-term stability in the region and the world.

"I think to resist security risks and maybe.terrorism in the future, we better go for sustainable returns in Afghanistan and make that a real success. This should be the priority today," Mr. Lubbers said.

More than 2 million people have gone back to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, primarily from Pakistan. Another 1.2 million are expected to go back this year from neighbouring countries, according to an update by the UN refugee agency.

While in the Afghan capital, the High Commissioner is scheduled to meet with top-ranking Afghan and UN officials. Mr. Lubbers will also visit Nahrin district in Balkh Province to see the conditions of returnees and review shelter projects. Successive earthquakes hit Nahrin in late 2001 and March 2002, levelling many houses and collapsing irrigation systems.

From there Mr. Lubbers will travel to Islamabad, where he is scheduled to meet with Pakistani President Musharraf and visit settlements for Afghan refugees getting ready to head home as this year's repatriation season gets underway.

During the Iranian leg of the trip, Mr. Lubbers is scheduled to meet President Khatami and several senior ministers in Tehran. He also plans to visit Ahwaz, in southwestern Iran, where he will meet provincial authorities and officials from the Iranian Red Crescent Society who are involved in assisting Iraqi refugees in Iran. Iran shelters 202,000 Iraqi refugees - more than half the total number of recognized Iraqi asylum seekers in the world.

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