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By Ruud Lubbers

Ruud Lubbers is U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and former prime minister of the Netherlands. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees won the Nobel peace prize in 1981.

-- For those who help the world's dispossessed, there are few sights more gratifying than a newly closed refugee camp. I recently visited one such site in Pakistan shortly after the last Afghan refugees had loaded their belongings onto trucks and set off for home, ending two decades of exile.

What was once a bustling but impoverished refugee settlement had suddenly become a desolate ghost town, its mud-walled houses stripped of every roof beam, window frame, door and stove pipe. Nothing of possible value was left behind. The departing Afghans knew they were returning to a country devastated by years of war, drought and economic ruin and would need all the help they could get.

Voluntary repatriation, known in humanitarian-speak as the ''preferred durable solution'' for refugees, is about as close as we get to a happy ending in an otherwise sad business. Two other durable solutions -- integration in the country of first asylum or resettlement to a third country -- are sought when refugees cannot go back to their home countries. Over the last two years, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has helped find such solutions for nearly 4 million people, including some 2 million Afghans who have gone home this year alone. In 2001, the number of people of concern to my office fell from 21.8 million worldwide on Jan. 1 to 19.8 million by year's end. So far this year, the positive trend has continued.

UNHCR and its partners are now pursuing some new initiatives to find lasting solutions for even more of the world's refugees. One of these approaches focuses on improving the long-term prospects for successful repatriation and reintegration, while another seeks to bring more help and new hope to those languishing in exile for years on end. In Afghanistan and other post-conflict situations, we are working to ensure that when refugees make the brave choice to go home, they get the help they need to get back on their feet. That means support not only in the initial stages of return and reintegration, but throughout the longer-term development phase when UNHCR scales down and others take over.

Although crucial, the return and reintegration of refugees are just the first steps in rebuilding a conflict-torn society. Once refugees have arrived home, UNHCR helps them reintegrate through activities that can range from providing shelter repair kits and fixing local water systems to offering micro-credit schemes. In theory, these ''humanitarian'' activities wind down as the longer term ''development'' programs of other agencies speed up. In practice, however, there are often glaring gaps in this transition process that can leave returnees in a very vulnerable position. Sometimes, UNHCR has found itself working in a vacuum, with no one to whom it can hand over its activities. In other situations, humanitarian and development agencies have worked largely in isolation, with little effort made to incorporate returnees into longer term rehabilitation and reconstruction plans. Such gaps can lead to renewed instability and even new displacement.

To better bridge this crucial transition phase, UNHCR has devised the so-called ''4Rs approach'' (repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction) and is working with the World Bank, the U.N. Development Program, the World Food Program, UNICEF and others on a series of pilot projects. These projects -- in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and Eritrea -- are aimed at fostering a smoother transition from the initial humanitarian-led stages right on through to the development phases in post-conflict situations, ensuring that returnee needs are covered throughout.

Making sure that refugees can go home and stay home is challenging enough. But what can be done for the millions of displaced people worldwide who are still waiting for a solution after years or even decades in exile?

First, we need to focus on helping them in their regions of origin. While rich countries voice increasing concern over the numbers of people arriving on their borders, it is actually the poor nations that provide asylum to most of the world's refugees. Over the past decade, developing countries produced 86 percent of the world's refugees, but also provided asylum for seven out of 10 of them. Both statistics underscore the vital need to invest in solutions for refugees in their regions of origin, including through what I call ''development through local integration.''

In poor countries worldwide, millions of refugees and displaced people live in abject poverty, often in remote and insecure areas. They have few opportunities for self-sufficiency and are almost entirely dependent on humanitarian aid. Surrounding communities are usually not much better off. Little wonder, then, that refugees go in search of help elsewhere. But despite the obvious advantages of investing in refugee problems at the source, rich countries are reducing assistance for many refugee programs. It is shameful that humanitarian work aimed at assisting some of the world's most vulnerable people -- refugees -- remains so grossly under-funded.

Moreover, development aid for the poor nations that host most of these refugees is minimal. The productive potential of refugees, including those in protracted exile, is enormous and needs to be tapped. Rather than treating them simply as a burden, we need to recognize that they can be agents of development. By channeling development funds to projects in the poor, remote areas where many refugees are housed, both the surrounding community and the refugees benefit.

One concrete example of development through local integration is in Zambia, where efforts to enable refugees to become self-sufficient through agricultural projects and small businesses have led to several beneficial spinoffs in the local economy as well. No one should be overlooked in the search for solutions, including the very small group of seemingly forgotten refugees I recently met in Saudi Arabia's remote Rafha refugee camp. Set up after the Gulf War, Rafha initially held more than 30,000 Iraqi refugees. Twelve years later, most of them have been resettled in third countries. But there are still about 5,200 left -- a mere handful in global terms -- who desperately need to get on with their lives.

UNHCR is currently working with the Saudi government on a plan to find resettlement for some of them and local integration for the rest. When we succeed, Rafha's closure will go largely unnoticed by the world. But for those who walk out of its gates for the last time, it will mark the beginning of a new life.

(c) 2002, Nobel Laureates. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 11/18/02)

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