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PAKISTAN: Security Concerns Force Afghan Refugees to Stay

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Apr 3 2007 (IPS) - “Lack of security in Afghanistan is the main obstacle standing in the way of our going back,” said an Afghan vegetable-seller, straddling a muddy narrow lane in Kacha Garhi, the oldest refugee camp in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), with a push-cart.

The 22-year-old, Najeeb Mohammad, said his family had fled Afghanistan 18 years ago. Now selling vegetable in the streets of the Nasirbagh locality, he says they had planned several times to return to their country but the law and order situation coupled with the lack of job opportunities have compelled them to stay.

Pakistan which is home to an estimated 2.5 million Afghan refugees, is trying its level best to ensure that the refugees return home.

The United Nations refugee agency UNCHR says it has helped repatriate 58,000 Afghans since Mar. 1, when the relocation process resumed after the winter season.

According to a refugee census conducted by the Pakistan Census Organisation in 2005, there are an estimated 2.2 million registered Afghan refugees in the country. Proof of Registration (POR) cards were issued to enable refugees to continue living in Pakistan for three years.

Now the government intends to close Kacha Garhi and Jallozai, 35 km southwest of Peshawar, and two camps in Balochistan by September this year, Yar Mohammad Rind, minister for state and frontier regions, has announced.

The decision affects some 120,000 people in Jallozai and 60,000 in Kacha Garhi. Alizai and Janglekhel camps in Balochistan province together shelter 150,000 Afghan refugees.

“We have credible reports that Afghans run away to Afghanistan after committing crimes, even murders, dacoities (robberies)and car-snatching in Pakistan. About 50 percent of the crimes in the city are committed by them,” said Saeed Wazir, a senior police official.

Haji Mohammed, an elderly Afghan, told IPS that the refugees could not go back to Afghanistan, primarily because of a worsening law and order situation there. Lack of basic amenities in the country was also hampering their repatriation, he added.

“I led a four-member family to Pakistan in 1980, but now my family has grown to 54 members,” he said.

“Let the government throw our women and children in the Kabul River but at no cost will we go back to Afghanistan,” a ‘jirga’ (traditional assembly) of the two NWFP refugee camps told minister Rind on Mar. 29.

The elders were of the view that the situation in Afghanistan was extremely dangerous and civilians were being killed there, while there was no shelter, education, health facilities and employment opportunities in the war-ravaged country.

Sahibzada Mohammad Anees, Commissioner Afghan Refugees (CAR), pointed out that Pakistan was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention or any other protocol to shelter and feed such a large number of Afghans, yet it would not resort to the use of force for their repatriation.

“Pakistan is providing shelter to more than 2.5 million Afghans on humanitarian grounds,” he said. The government has never imposed a ban on their movement and activities in any part of the country, he explained. Instead, they have been given livelihood opportunities and exemptions from several taxes, he concluded.

“We face a lot of problems. Police arrests us and sets us free only after we have paid them a bribe,” said Gul Wali, an Afghan tax-driver at Kacha Garhi.

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have lately been sour. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has accused Islamabad of meddling not only in his country’s affairs but also of supporting and providing sanctuary to the Taliban.

The rebel fighters are thought to be hiding along a 2,400 km porous, tribal belt. Despite the deployment of 80,000 troops, Pakistan has not been able to control the infiltration. The Taliban have taken refuge in Pakistan’s border areas after the US-led forces toppled their government in 2001.

“The Afghan refugees’ return is a big problem. People of NWFP and Balochistan are extremely worried due to their presence,” said, Ashraf Ali, who is doing a doctoral thesis on the Taliban at the University of Peshawar.

Psychiatrist Dr Iftikhar Hussain believes that most Afghan youth who have grown up in Pakistan would not like to return home. “They feel suffocated when they visit their country. There’s no electricity, no school, no jobs, no entertainment and no peace,” he told IPS.

The Pakistan government had already closed down several camps in an effort to compel Afghan refugees to leave the country. Refugees in Jallozai and Kacha Garhi have been told they can relocate to new camps in Dir and Chitral districts, far south and north of the provincial headquarters Peshawar.

“How can we take care of our children when there are no jobs, no prospects in the new refugee camps?” asked a frustrated Razia Begum, a mother of six children, at Jallozai.

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