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Afghan refugees seek return after 40 years

Afghan refugees appealed to Pakistan and the U.N. for more support at a conference, hoping to return home after four decades of fleeing wars and conflict.

Afghan refugees appealed to Pakistan and the United Nations for more support at an international conference that ended on Tuesday, hoping to return home after four decades of forcibly living abroad fleeing wars and conflict.

Pakistan's government and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, convened a two-day ministerial-level conference in Islamabad to mark 40 years of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan — and to remind the world of their plight.

Many of them feel abandoned by the world, UNHCR said in a statement, and "this is an impression that we must prove wrong."

Before the conference, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and UNCHR'S chief, Filippo Grandi, met with 20 Afghan refugees ranging from community elders to university students.

“I’m a child of war. I was born a refugee,” Zainab Maha Shah, a 22-year-old student of bioinformatics at Pakistan's public research-focused Quaid-I-Azam University Islamabad, told U.N. leaders. She is one of 350 refugees in Pakistan with scholarships that are paid for by Germany and overseen by UNHCR.

Guterres said the United Nations must "do everything possible" to her and other Afghan refugees, and to facilitate peace in Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of civilians have died since the United States launched its "war on terror" there in  2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.

"As we look to the challenges ahead, the global community must step up. On the one hand, we mark 40 unbroken years of solidarity. But we also despair at 40 broken years of hostility," Guterres told the conference.

"The Afghan conflict drags on and on — and we see the deep impact of the protracted nature of conflict, poverty and forced displacement," he said. "We know the solution lies in Afghanistan. I hope the signals of a possible pathway for peace will lead to a better future for the people of Afghanistan."

He was referring to negotiations between the United States and Taliban that could bring a cease-fire leading to a peace deal, which would include the withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO troops in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan will no longer be used as a staging ground for international terrorism.

'Courage and resilience'

Some 4.7 million Afghans remain uprooted globally, including 2.7 million registered as refugees and 2 million displaced inside Afghanistan, according the U.N. refugee agency, which says Afghans are the longest displaced and dispossessed population under its mandate worldwide.

About 90% of Afghan refugees live in Pakistan and Iran, largely unwanted and neglected by their home and host nations and ignored by the international community. In both countries, about three-quarters of all Afghan refugees are younger than 25. Most have some access to education and national healthcare.

“This is what we are here to mark today: the compassion, hospitality and solidarity of the people of the host countries; and the courage and resilience of the Afghan people," Grandi told the conference in his opening remarks.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, who inaugurated the conference, emphasized that his government facilitated the U.S.-Taliban peace process because "it is not in the interest of Pakistan for there to be any strife in Afghanistan."

He denied accusations by U.S. and Afghan officials that Pakistan still covertly supports the Taliban. "Our security forces are on the same page," Khan said. "There was an idea that the security forces in Pakistan had their own policy and the government had their own policy. This is not the case any more."

Before the U.S. invasion, Afghanistan was at war against the former Soviet Union. U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been leading the American negotiations with the Taliban, said Afghanistan still suffers from "a terrible war" that must be brought to an end.

Khalilzad, an Afghan-American diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the talks have progressed to possibly reducing the violence then signing an agreement. “That will open the door to Afghans sitting across the the table," he told the conference, "one side by the government of Afghanistan and on the other by the Taliban of Afghanistan."