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UN refugee agency official plans for future of Afghan refugees in Pakistan

UN refugee agency official plans for future of Afghan refugees in Pakistan

Afghans air concerns in  meeting at Katchagari camp
Meeting with Pakistani Government officials and Afghan refugees in a four-day visit to the region this week, a senior United Nations refugee agency official said that she is carefully reviewing plans for voluntary repatriation and refugee camp closures.

Janet Lim, director of the Asia-Pacific Bureau of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), held meetings yesterday with Government officials from the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees. She also met with refugees in Katchagari, one of the four camps due to be closed this summer after an agreement reached at the Tripartite Commission meeting among Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNHCR earlier this month.

“UNHCR has always insisted that any returns must be voluntary and that relocation to existing pre-identified camps for those not repatriating remains as an option,” Ms. Lim told Afghan elders at the Katchagari camp.

Pakistan has identified camps in Dir and Chitral, near its northern border with Afghanistan, as possible relocation sites for refugees currently living in the four camps slated to close this year. UNHCR will provide assistance and transportation to refugees electing to transfer to different camps.

However, some refugees said that moving to new camps is not the best solution, as some sites are inaccessible given the heavy winter snow.

“If we go to relocation camps, it will be difficult and expensive for us to build our houses again,” one elder told Ms. Lim, who served as director of technical advisory, relief, recovery and reconstruction for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) from 2003 to 2004.

However, for many, voluntary repatriation is not a viable option either.

The main reason that many refugees refuse to return to their homeland is that “there is no peace in Afghanistan,” one elder in a camp told Ms. Lim. “Even if we go back, we don’t know where to settle.”

To this end, the Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation Ustad Mohammad Akbar Akbar, himself a former refugee, has announced several schemes aimed at helping displaced Afghans returning home, including a land allocation scheme establishing 50 townships in 29 provinces, with further plans to set up a total of 100 townships within three years.

Refugees also expressed gratitude for UNHCR aid, and asked for continued support. Whether he chooses relocation within Pakistan or returning to his homeland, one refugee said, “We just ask that UNHCR provides assistance and services.”

Recently, the agency assisted the Pakistani Government in officially registering over 2.1 million Afghan refugees, three out of five being women and children under five years of age, now recognized as Afghan citizens temporarily living in Pakistan.

Afghans without Proof of Registration cards, who are considered illegal migrants by the Pakistani Government, will have a six-week grace period between 1 March and 15 April to voluntarily return to their homeland with UNHCR’s assistance.

Registered Afghans have between 16 April and 15 November to repatriate with an enhanced benefits package worth $60, with the amount possibly being increased to $100.