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EU Debates Repatriation of Afghan Refugees - 2002-10-15


The European Union wants to move forward with plans to repatriate tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, possibly by force.

The ministers debated a draft plan that focuses on the voluntary return of the refugees, but does not rule out forced repatriation. The EU program would likely complement, rather than replace initiatives started by some of the 15 member countries.

The draft says the transfer of refugees back to Afghanistan should be financed by individual EU states, while the 15-nation bloc's common budget should assist Afghans in re-establishing themselves when they get home. The EU hopes to agree on the refugee-return program before the end of the year.

Britain and France have reached agreement with Afghan authorities on their own voluntary programs.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy says some Afghan refugees from the Sangatte refugee camp in France will begin returning voluntarily to Afghanistan in the coming days. He says the returning refugees would be a test case of how repatriation might work in the future.

About 600 Afghans and 1,000 Kurds live at the Sangatte camp. Attempts by camp residents to flee to Britain through the nearby Channel Tunnel have created tension between France and Britain.

After consultations with Britain last month, France announced it would refuse new refugees entry to the camp starting in mid-November and close it completely next April.

The collapse of the Taleban government late last year under a U.S.-led bombing campaign has prompted the return of nearly two million Afghans, mainly from Pakistan and Iran. But stability remains elusive in Afghanistan as the country struggles to recover from more than two decades of war, as well as recent natural disasters, including drought and earthquakes.

U.N. refugee officials say Afghanistan is having trouble handling the refugees who have returned, and many are living in difficult conditions. The Human Rights group Amnesty International also says this is delicate period for Afghanistan to be taking in more refugees.