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AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN: Jalozai refugee camp wins temporary reprieve

KABUL/ISLAMABAD, 3 September 2007 (IRIN) - Thousands of Afghans living in Pakistan’s largest refugee camp have won a temporary reprieve after an official closure date set by Islamabad was postponed by about six months.

“Pakistan’s Interior Ministry has ensured that the Jalozai refugee camp will not be closed down until March 2008,” Shojauddin Shoja, an adviser to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Returnees (MoRR), told IRIN in Kabul. “We believe Pakistan has helped us to avert a possible humanitarian tragedy in the coming winter.”

Faridullah Khan, an official with the Afghan Refugees’ Commission (ARC) - a Pakistani entity dealing with Afghan refugee affairs in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) where the camp is located - confirmed the latest news, adding: “An agreement will be signed in the very near future to formalise the extension.”

The weekend development was well received by residents of the camp, many of whom were unsure what to do, especially with winter approaching.

Abdul Hamid Ahmadzai, an Afghan diplomat in Peshawar, NWFP’s provincial capital, said after days of constant worry and stress refugees in the camp were now relieved Pakistani security forces in the area had been instructed not to demolish the camp.

But despite the passing of the 31 August deadline, the future of the camp’s tens of thousands of residents remains tenuous.

Jalozai, which is the largest and one of the oldest refugee camps in the country, is 35km southwest of Peshawar, and was established in the 1980s after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Earlier this year the camp, one of 85 in the country, had a reported population of 110,000. Some 14,000 have since opted for repatriation.

Pakistan decided to close four camps in the country this year, including Jalozai, after claims they harboured criminal elements and cross-border insurgents - a contentious issue that Islamabad has been keen to resolve.

As part of the government's plan, residents of the camps could either repatriate to their homeland, taking advantage of assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), or relocate to other government-designated camps inside Pakistan.

“We will assist them in moving to the camps, as well as provide them with the same assistance they are currently receiving at Jalozai, including primary education,” Vivian Tan, a UNHCR spokeswoman said in Islamabad.

According to a recent report on the registration of Afghans living in Pakistan, the majority of Afghans registered (82 percent) said they had no intention of returning to their homeland in the near future, citing insecurity, lack of shelter, and lack of limited livelihoods - a fact that the Pakistani government was quick to affirm.

Afghanistan vulnerable to mass returns

“The international community needs to help Afghanistan in settling these refugees who are leaving voluntarily because we have to close down refugee camps close to the border,” said Tasneem Aslam, the spokeswoman for the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Afghanistan is vulnerable to a mass return of its citizens from neighbouring countries, and experts believe the postponement of Jalozai’s closure will only temporarily ease a potential humanitarian crisis.

In April, tens of thousands of Afghans were deported from Iran, many of whose urgent humanitarian needs remain unmet.

Since the collapse of the Taliban regime in December 2001, close to 3.2 million Afghans have returned to their homeland from Pakistan; 324,000 this year alone.

According to UNHCR, there are still some 2 million registered Afghans in Pakistan today.



Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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