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UN refugee agency closes makeshift camp along Pakistani-Afghan border

22 July The wait is finally over for thousands of Afghans stranded for the past 18 months - a makeshift camp on the Pakistani-Afghan border was closed today after the United Nations refugee agency moved the last remaining residents to a new settlement inside Afghanistan.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that the last group of 391 Afghans had been transferred from the sight commonly known as the "Chaman waiting area" to Zhare Dasht, near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, putting an end to 18 months of controversy over the insecure, waterless site that once hosted some 26,000 Afghans.

According to the agency, they left behind ragged, homemade tents and a maze of mud walls that were immediately flattened by the Pakistani authorities. This final group joined more than 10,000 Afghans who had been moved to Zhare Dasht over the last few weeks, as well as another 7,000 who had chosen to be relocated there last year.

A separate group of more than 7,800 people who had been confined to the waiting area opted to move to Mohammad Kheil camp in Pakistan, while only 32 chose to return to their home areas in Afghanistan.

The makeshift camp was first created by Afghan asylum-seekers when Pakistan closed its borders to new refugee arrivals in February 2002. However, UNHCR always considered the site, located along a smuggling route, unsuitable for a refugee camp. Last month, bodies of 22 fighters killed nearby in a battle with Afghan government troops were dumped in the centre of the refugee settlement in a grim reminder of the area's fragile security.

In addition, Pakistani authorities, anxious to prevent the area from becoming a permanent village, would not let aid workers provide more than basic humanitarian relief such as food and water. Aside from a few UNHCR tarpaulins distributed to emergency cases a year ago, the refugees lived under homemade tents.

The decision to close the area by the end of July, which was not a recognized refugee camp where UNHCR could provide full assistance, was taken in May at the first meeting of the Tripartite Commission, a body set up under an agreement by Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNHCR to set policy on the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees until 2005.

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