ISLAMABAD - United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres Sunday began a three-day visit to Pakistan by urging the international community to support countries that continue to host millions of refugees from war-shattered Afghanistan.
Guterres is in Islamabad for meetings with Pakistani leaders and to deliver a keynote address to an international conference Monday marking 40 years of hosting of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran, one of the world's largest and longest-standing refugee populations.
The U.N. chief's visit comes amid renewed hopes a United States-led peace initiative could help bring an end to the deadly Afghan war, which continues to cause more displacements and civilian sufferings.
"My fist meeting in Pakistan: generations of Afghan refugees shared their deeply moving stories, hopes & dreams," Guterres tweeted after his interaction with representatives of the displaced population in the Pakistani capital. "For 40 years, Pakistan has sheltered Afghan refugees. I urge the world to support host countries and show similar leadership in standing with refugees," he added.
The U.N. estimates that some 4.6 million Afghans, including 2.7 million registered refugees, still live outside of Afghanistan. Around 90 per cent of them are being hosted by Pakistan (1.4 million) and Iran (1 million).
Officials say Monday's ministerial conference, convened jointly with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will highlight the "generosity, hospitality and compassion" of Pakistan, Iran and other countries in hosting the refugee population impacted by more than four decades of unrest in Afghanistan.
The meeting, organizers say, is also meant to remind the global community about the fate of millions of Afghans living as refugees, "many of whom feel the rest of the world may have already abandoned them." It will seek to "galvanise greater support" to establish conditions for voluntary repatriation and sustainable reintegration of refugees in Afghanistan, according to a UNHCR statement.
UNHCR says funding levels have dropped for its already under-resourced operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran over the years - making it hard to invest in Afghan lives and continue support to affected local host communities.