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Q&A with Mengesha Kebede

Q&A with Mengesha Kebede

Mengesha Kebede, Representative of UNHCR in Pakistan, talks to Blue Chip about the UNHCR’s critical work in Pakistan regarding the internally displaced people and the Afghan refugee crisis as well as his fascinating career in different countries across the world.
What are your initial impressions of Pakistan?

Mengesha Kebede: “I am relatively new here and still in my learning phase; trying to understand the intricacies and complexities of Pakistan. It is definitely much more complex than many other humanitarian situations I have dealt with. Usually, in the international humanitarian arena, groups have been established so that primarily, it’s more manageable to conduct your business. Here, it’s a bit complex. When we look at some of the humanitarian challenges we are facing globally today, we are dealing with situations, say like Somalia where literally, you have a total collapse of the state and as such, it poses a totally different type of challenge. In places like Sudan – where you have a fragmentation between the north and the south – you have a problem in Darfur. But at the same time, there is a strong central government which might not be in a position to really exert its influence in south Sudan. If we look at Chad, the government is strong in N’Djamena but not in the outlying areas.

But once you come to Pakistan, you realise that you have an unbelievably well structured, well-disciplined military. You certainly do have a strong government, so the State structure is very, very strong. So, it’s not only that it’s not a non-failed state, but far from it. It is full of contradictions and complexes which is what fascinates me.

Even now, with all the problems that Pakistan is facing, one doesn’t realise that Pakistan is helping countries which are less fortunate, even in terms of security. I have served in many parts of Africa and many countries today owe the relative peace and stability there to the Pakistan Army.”

How has the Pakistan Army contributed to the peace and stability in these countries?

MK: “Let me put that in perspective. I served at the Angola-Namibia border in 1988-89. People forget, but Namibia was a South African colony and there was a UN resolution for its independence. We had to go in as the UN had established a functioning structure to enable elections to take place and then, of course, for the elected government to take over. At that time, the great majority of the Namibian leadership, in particular, those associated with SWAPO, were in exile in Angola and Zambia. So, as part of that resolution, our job was to bring back the refugees in time for them to participate in the peace process. I was an officer operating in the Namibia-Angola border. We had all sorts of issues there. A UN detachment was deployed there and there was unrest with the rebels and the South African army withdrew and basically, for those of us who were meant to operate in that humanitarian space having been created by the detachment, (which had itself ran away), were not able to operate. So we were told not to worry and that another detachment will be coming in its place.

It was a detachment of the Pakistan military. That unit came and not only held the ground, but they also created an environment for us to actually bring back refugees. Among those refugees who came back included the current president of Namibia. So, Pakistan really contributed positively at that time. Even now, you have an army which is engaged in more and more issues internally but at the same time, since it is such a strong army, it can also extend support to the UN Peacekeeping Mission and so on.

It is not an issue of state weakness or lack of military capability. Of course, there are issues, maybe which were not attended to earlier as part of development or as part of cohesive nation-building. But then, there are other aspects of this challenge. Part of the problem has nothing to do with Pakistan itself. You don’t get to choose your neighbours and the geopolitical location of Pakistan, in particular because of events in Afghanistan, tends to create complications.

From our perspective, usually when countries have 10,000 refugees, it is termed a ‘national calamity’ and becomes a big issue. But as I speak, Pakistan still hosts over 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees and by our definition, this is by far the largest refugee population anywhere in the world.”

What are your views on the ongoing situation in Afghanistan and the impact it will have on more refugees coming into Pakistan?

MK: “Looking at the sheer number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan: a couple of years ago, we had 2.4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and during the last couple of years we have had a successful repatriation programme. When I see the trend over the last year or two, the numbers have dropped – primarily not because of the situation in Pakistan but because of the ability of them being absorbed back into Afghanistan and the whole deterioration of the situation inside Afghanistan.

So, on one side, there is the whole issue of return – for which there is a commitment from both the governments and the UNHCR to facilitate the return provided it is voluntary as the voluntary return of the Afghan refugees is the durable solution. Everyone agrees on that but for there to be a voluntary return, there has to be sustainability of the return also at the other end.

Unfortunately, we have a situation today where we are talking of a military build-up in Afghanistan while at the same time we have to look at the sustainability of return into safe areas. In my line of work, we always have to be prepared for whatever eventuality might arise and to which we are able to respond – should the need arise – and in that regard, we have to plan for more refugees coming into Pakistan. Should that situation arise, we will come to assist the people and government of Pakistan and respond to such an eventuality.”

UNHCR played a leading role with regard to the earthquake and the IDP situation. What are your views on the work UNHCR has been doing?

MK: “Primarily, UNHCR is here to provide whatever support it can to the Government of Pakistan. We have been the first to respond after the earthquake and to the refugees as part of a common humanitarian initiative. When we talk of internally displaced persons, we talk of issues relating to management, shelter, provision of food items – as they are part of our defined role. Wherever there is need for us to come in and establish camps, we will assist the government in providing shelter, food and kitchen items, provision of blankets, etc.

In terms of 2010, we remain hopeful that there won’t be additional displacement but should there be displacement in whatever shape, we will definitely provide assistance. In that regard we are monitoring the trends. We are aware of conflicts in South Waziristan. All those who came from South Waziristan were assisted and registered. Currently, we are following developments in Orakzai and North Waziristan and we will be monitoring developments in the Khyber Agency.”

Can you tell us more about your background? How long have you been with UNHCR?

MK: “I’ve been with UNHCR for 27 years in different capacities. My last assignment, prior to coming here, was in Geneva as Deputy Director for the African bureau, precisely focusing on our programme in Africa – including Sudan, Kenya and others. I have served as UNHCR regional representative in South Africa, covering Mozambique, Swaziland, etc. I have also served in different capacities in Geneva. At one time, I headed our programme Mission and Operation Support which enabled me to focus on the Americas – Colombia, Venezuela, etc.

Basically, I’ve had a very interesting career with UNHCR which unfortunately means moving around a lot!”

Your ambassador, Angelina Jolie, has been here twice and created awareness about the refugees here…

MK: “She usually represents our major operations. Pakistan being one, its natural that she comes here. She definitely brings awareness both in terms of refugees locally and internationally, and then of course, she continues to be our Goodwill Ambassador. We are lucky to have her.”

And the wonderful thing is she came back.

MK: “Yes, she follows up. She is very committed. Recently, she visited our programmes in Kenya. That’s where we have our major operation as Africa’s refugee-hosting camp. She has been following up on that. She actually went and spent her vacations there. For us, that was excellent because she draws international attention to the plight of refugees, because, lets admit it, the refugee issue is not something people like discussing over dinner!”

And I don’t think the world realised the actual magnitude of the refugee problem in Pakistan until she drew attention to it…

MK: “That’s true. In Pakistan, when one looks at the sheer number of refugees and the hospitality extended to refugees… I don’t think even the Pakistanis are aware of it. It is actually quite an exemplary position that the government and the people have taken.”

And it’s a complex situation when the country is also accused of harbouring terrorists or giving safe haven to terrorists!

MK: “This is a challenge of the geopolitics of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We don’t need to go over it. There were times when fighting the Soviet Union was considered a worthwhile cause by a few. Then came the whole issue of Al Qaeda, Taliban, etc. So from my perspective – we are not a political institution – but unfortunately we are the ones to deal with the consequences. The sheer magnitude and the need that has been addressed, I think we need to remind people of it. One needs to be also careful that they don’t equate refugees with terrorists. When I look at the developments in Pakistan and the suicide bombings that have taken place – to the best of my information, none of the suicide bombers were Afghans. This is a homegrown problem that needs to be addressed. Having said that, just like the refugees have got rights; they also have obligations. The civilian character and peaceful nature of their asylum should not be compromised. If there a few among the Afghans who are involved in this type of activity, they are definitely not exempted from justice and should be charged as action needs to be taken against them.

But when we talk of 1.7 million refugees, we should also think about who these persons are. These 1.7 million refugees are not all male adults with beards. There are families. Only recently, over a 100,000 newly born babies have been registered in Pakistan – these are Afghan refugees. Why should they be labelled terrorists or enemies?

Difficult as it is, Pakistan has been providing protection and asylum; shelter and assistance to refugees for 30 years and now that it is in this difficult period of non-governance situation in NWFP, FATA, etc. we should not throw all that away. On the contrary, there is a challenge. How can one address that challenge is what needs to be discussed, with the involvement of the Afghan government. That is why, from all perspectives, a tripartite forum offers that opportunity to both. We are party to a tripartite agreement. Pakistan needs to sit down with the Afghan government and see how we can expedite solutions and options for Afghan refugees – repatriation being the most durable of all solutions. It’s a catch-22 situation in a way.

If you don’t put it into a time frame while the NATO coalition forces are talking of an upsurge in Afghanistan and if you are convinced that 1.7 million people can go back in one year – that might not be realistic and we need to sit down and plan for it. Those who volunteer to go back even now to certain areas in Afghanistan, we have to assist them to go back and then, as the situation continues to improve, we will do an assessment on a province-by-province basis. Since we know the places of origin of all the refugees, we will encourage and facilitate their voluntary return. So, all of that needs to be put within that time frame and there has to be some legal framework – all of which is being worked upon presently.”

Why has there been more of an influx of refugees into Pakistan as compared to the other countries in the region?

MK: “There has also been a significant influx into Iran but I think it’s the nature of the conflict and also, due to the population density in Afghanistan , there are cross-border affiliations and the Pashtuns might feel safer coming into Pashtun areas. I think it’s a combination of factors. Pakistan has a very long border with Afghanistan.”

It’s also a very porous border.

MK: “All borders are porous. I am not aware of a border which is sealed. Israel has been trying to seal its border with south Lebanon and has not succeeded up till now. The US has been trying to seal its border with Mexico and they have not succeeded after all the resources they have put in place. Of course, that doesn’t mean we cannot strengthen border formalities. My feeling is that once we look beyond the refugee issue, then definitely better border management between Pakistan and Afghanistan would have to be looked into and the whole issue of migration. We would be advocating for better border management because it brings about clarity. We have repatriated a significant number of Afghans. Some of them, I’m told, have come back to Pakistan. If they have, it’s not to become refugees as we have de-registered them. So there is a constant to and fro of people.”

How long will you be in Pakistan for?

MK: “There isn’t a definite time frame. I expect to be here for two-three years.”

What do you find the most challenging aspect of your job?

MK: “That’s a tough one! Coming to Pakistan, one of the challenges we have is that Pakistan is neither here nor there! It is in limbo – let me be provocative – limbo in the sense that usually with the UN, we have duty stations that are clearly defined. If I were to go to Afghanistan I know what to expect. So I will arrive in Kabul and the UN will assign me to a guest house which is protected and you operate within such an environment. Then there are other locations, for example, if I were to go to Geneva on an assignment, I will go into a hotel and then I will be asked to go out and look for my own dwelling. So we have those two extremes. And Pakistan, particularly Islamabad, is like Geneva. I arrive here. I am asked to go to a hotel and then find my own accommodation. So you rent out an accommodation. But then comes another dilemma when you are told that there is no security. Pakistan is a no-family duty station. You realise most of the houses here have been built for families and not for individuals. So that’s what I mean by being in a limbo!

I served as a representative in Liberia when that country came out of the conflict. So, straight from the airport I was taken straight to the representatives’ guest house where the UN provides you with furniture. You stay there and you pay a certain amount and it’s all managed. For emergency crisis countries we (at the UN) are well prepared. But should such a situation develop in Geneva, we would not be prepared.
So, that is what a new arrival will go through in coming to Pakistan today. I’ve rented a house and it has five bedrooms when I know I’ll be sleeping in only one of them! You don’t know what to do with the other rooms!
But I face these types of challenges which are not obvious and not really something serious as such. My international experience varies from location to location. There are things which will shock you primarily because of the cultural differences and because they were not what you expected. So I have my own experience from different parts of the world. But, nothing serious – I am still alive!”

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