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RIGHTS-PAKISTAN: Afghan Refugees Forcibly Herded Home – Activists

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Jul 8 2007 (IPS) - While heavy seasonal rains that damaged bridges on the road to Afghanistan have forced the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to suspend repatriation operations, Pakistan’s frontier police has announced intensification of efforts to send back &#39illegal&#39 Afghans.

Flash floods have been reported across parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Roads have been blocked, and on Jul. 3, in Salang, a central Afghan province, hundreds of people joined a blockade to protest the government’s failure to provide relief and aid.

According to reports, the Torkham crossing from Peshawar to Afghanistan has opened, and registered Afghans can now approach the Hayatabad Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Peshawar. The U.N.’s refugee body gives each returning Afghan the equivalent of roughly 100 US dollars in assistance. Apart from Torkham, refugees can take the Quetta-Chaman road back to their war-torn country.

An estimated 1.3 million Afghans still remain in Pakistan five years after a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime and appointed Hamid Karzai, as Afghanistan’s new leader.

According to Abdul Majeed Marwat, Peshawar police chief, while the majority of Afghans have registered with the authorities, "some 250,000 Afghans were staying illegally. While 170,000 have returned to their country, 80,000 have gone missing", he disclosed.

"Local police has started necessary action against refugees who had not obtained registration cards and were staying illegally in Pakistan," said Marwat, who claimed that Afghans commit most crimes in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP).

Marwat revealed that some 50 arrests have been made since Jun. 15, and cases registered against them under the Foreigners’ Act. The decision to oust Afghans who cannot prove their status in Pakistan was taken at a meeting between the police and officials of the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CAR).

Last year, the government had announced closure of Pakistan’s largest Afghan refugee camp, Kacha Garhi, by Jun. 30 this year. Later the deadline was extended by a fortnight. Three other camps, Jallozi in NWFP and two others in Balochistan province, are scheduled to be closed by August.

Kamran Arif, vice-chairman of the independent Pakistan Human Rights Commission, has described the process of repatriation as extremely "harsh and inhuman".

"We have formed a fact-finding mission," he told IPS. "We are unhappy over the treatment meted out to the refugees." The Kacha Garhi camp was surrounded by the police and paramilitary troops and bulldozers were moved in to demolish the mud plastered houses the moment their occupants leave.

Arif, a lawyer, said the registration process was also faulty. Families who have signed up with the UNHCR to return to their country can be stuck interminably in repatriation camps. Those who have turned down the offer will be relocated to Chitral and Upper Dir districts in the NWFP, closer to the Afghanistan border.

"Afghan refugees who have not obtained registration cards and are staying illegally would be repatriated or sent to new refugee camps," said Afghan Refugees Commissioner Nasir Azam Khan. Fifteen teams have been constituted to collect information on all Afghans, which will be given to the police.

Haji Dost Mohammad, who is in charge of the Kacha Garhi camp, said the Pakistan government’s unilateral decision was not to their satisfaction. "There are no jobs, no electricity there," he said. "In Peshawar, the residents of the camps could at least find some work," he told IPS.

Desperate refugees have resorted to renting houses in Peshawar at exorbitant rates. "We have found a dilapidated house inside the city for 2,000 rupees (33 dollars) per month. In Kacha Garhi, we paid nothing for our makeshift house, where we lived for 15 years," said, Shahbaz, 38. He said they could not afford going back to Afghanistan or relocation to any place other than Peshawar.

"We would die of hunger, if we left Peshawar, because we cannot find jobs in Dir and Chitral districts," he told IPS.

The UNHCR, which suspended the repatriation of refugees last week owing to rain and floods resumed process on Tuesday.

Commissioner Khan said they were determined to close the Kacha Garhi and other camps by the deadline set.

Pakistani authorities have defended the Afghan repatriation process and claimed that it was voluntary. That Pakistan has taken care of the refugees, and provided health and educational facilities. Nasir Azan, a government official, said they were in negotiations with non-governmental organisations to set up 50 schools in the new refugee camps in Dir and Chitral.

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