UNHCR Greece: ‘It’s important we don’t forget the Afghan people; they are part of the human family’

By Florinda Rojas Rodriguez* Mother’s Day is a time when we are supposed to remember the women who have done so much to help us stand on our own two feet and make our way in the world. Of course, we all know that if we really love those women, then every day should be Mother’s Day. It’s just that in the ebb and flow of everyday life, with its problems and distractions, we may lose sight of what is really important. Most of us have moments of reflection when we upbraid ourselves for taking people close to us for granted or for forgetting they rely on us as much as we do on them. People who work for humanitarian agencies often have the task of trying to make sure that we don’t collectively forget about millions of people who rely on us: refugees. It isn’t that there is a lack of compassion or willingness to help people who have lost their loved ones, who may not have enough to eat or clean water to drink. When a crisis reaches the headlines, as it did in Afghanistan last fall, there is an outpouring of moral and financial support from individuals, states and organizations. The problem is that when the cameras pack up and move on to the next crisis, our thoughts may move on with them. This seems to have happened with Afghanistan. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has helped half a million Afghan refugees return home in just over two months, but many of them are going home with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They need humanitarian aid more than ever if they are to build lives and a future. Ironically, though, at this critical juncture, the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations are having trouble raising the funds they need to provide returning Afghans with the basics: food, cooking utensils, transportation home, blankets. Short of cash, the International Organization for Migration announced this week that it is temporarily scaling back its efforts to transport displaced Afghans and returning refugees to their homes. The UN’s World Food Program warned last week that it faces a shortage of 75,000 tons of aid it will need over the next three months. These are just two examples. If you add them to the warnings from a number of assistance agencies in recent weeks, they amount to sounding the alarm. UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers said this week, «Many refugees are returning home with next to nothing.» What they have to get them started is assistance packages containing basic items and three months of food aid. The international community needs to ensure that the people going home can survive beyond that. The UNHCR will continue to rely largely on donor states to provide the assistance the Afghans need. The UN refugee agency needs $271 million over the 15 months ending in December 2002 to pay for its repatriation program. Of this amount, $171 million has been contributed. It’s important we don’t forget the Afghan people, who continue to need our help as they try to stand on their own two feet, even when we are not thinking about them. We may not know them personally, but they are mothers – and fathers, sons and daughters, part of the human family. We rely on them, too. In rebuilding their lives they are rebuilding their country and, in doing so, helping to make the world a more stable and peaceful place. * Florinda Rojas Rodriguez is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in Greece. Thousands of pilgrims flock to the church each year, the highlight being the Christmas celebration. Bethlehem lies about 8 kilometers (5 miles) south of Jerusalem in an area under Palestinian self-rule.