National Press Club

U.N. spokesman: One in four Afghans is a returning refugee

June 20, 2012 | By Lorna Aldrich |

Khaled Hosseini, best-selling author of "Kite Runner" and spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that the 5.7 million refugees who have returned to Afghanistan since 2002 constitute a quarter of the country's population.

Hosseini, an Afghan refugee to the United States at age 15, spoke at a June 20 Newsmaker event.

He described the refugee situation within Afghanistan and in neighboring Iran and Pakistan. Iran, he said, hosts 1.7 million UNHCR registered refugees, while Pakistan holds one million. Another 2.5 million refugees in the two countries are unregistered and without U.N. protection, he said.

"The international community and Afghanistan owe Iran and Pakistan a debt and a word of thanks," he said. He added that they have carried the burden of these refugees with little international assistance for more than 20 years.

He observed that many former refugee children don't speak Farsi, the language of Afghanistan, but Urdu, a language of Pakistan. The adjustments are difficult, he noted.

Hosseini described visiting a Tajik refugee family he met near the Bagram air base with the most beautiful blonde, blue-eyed children he had ever seen. They had no nearby water and no nearby clinic, he said. To earn money the father walked several miles to a road and hitchhiked to Kabul, where he could earn one or two dollars a day, Hosseini said.

The need for employment drives many returnees to Kabul, which continues to expand via ad hoc housing, he said. He added that the need for employment also creates cross-border traffic into Iran, where wages are four times those in Afghanistan.

From his observations of development projects around the Afghanistan, Hosseini said that "I just don't see the effects at the local level."

He advocated a plan developed in a four-way convention with UNHCR, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan in Geneva in May this year. The plan emphasizes a "bottom up" development strategy focusing on community level investment, he said.

Hosseini, a physician, noted that maternal childbirth deaths have dropped from 1400 per 100,000 live births to 327, which he said was still too high. Infant mortality has dropped from one-fifth to one-tenth, also much too high, he said.

He cited improvements in education. Two thousand schools have been built accommodating millions of children, 35 to 40 percent of them girls, he said. There has been a seven-fold rise in teachers, he said.