UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
PAKISTAN: Interview with UNHCR country representative
ISLAMABAD, 1 April 2003 (IRIN) - Since Pakistan was created in 1947 the history of this Muslim nation has been closely tied to large population movements. At partition from India some two million Muslims moved north to the new country. The civil war in former East Pakistan forced 20 million Bengalis to cross into India and return to their new country, Bangladesh, in 1971.
The Soviet occupation and subsequent civil war in neighbouring Afghanistan prompted over three million Afghans to seek refuge in Pakistan. But with the ongoing repatriations following peace and relative stability in Afghanistan, this huge number of refugees is slowly being reduced.
In an interview with IRIN, Hasim Utkan, the country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), spoke about the impact of the Iraq crisis on repatriations. He also told IRIN that repatriation efforts this year would focus on some 1.5 million refugees living in camps, to balance out the 1.6 million Afghans repatriated from cities in Pakistan last year.
QUESTION: What impact is the conflict in Iraq having on the repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan?
ANSWER: Developments in Iraq have created a sort of wait-and-see situation for refugees as well. Already, the expected numbers were limited. We have done some elaborate surveys, which showed that refugees here were worried by difficult circumstances in Afghanistan. Therefore, they were more hesitant to return this year compared to last year.
I think the Iraq developments have created an additional distraction, and people seem to be waiting even more than they would have done otherwise. The war in Iraq didn’t seriously interrupt repatriation. However, together with our colleagues in Afghanistan, we interrupted the operations for 48 hours to have a wait-and-see period. At this moment, the process is going on, and so far we have some 2,000 Afghans going back to their country.
Q: Why is the UNHCR’s repatriation this year focusing on Afghans in camps?
A: Last year, of the nearly 1.6 million Afghans who returned, 82 percent were originating from urban areas. It was felt that we had to have an even-handed approach. This year, the focus is on the camp population. As a matter of fact, only two camps were closed, Nasir Bagh in the [northwestern city of] Peshawar and the Emirates camp near Chaman [in the southwestern province of Balochistan].
There are some 1.5 million Afghans living in Pakistani refugee villages. Some camps have reduced their populations, such as the new Shamshatoo or the Old Jalozai [near Peshawar], but we felt that we also should give the opportunity to people in the camps who want to return. After all, it’s not an urban repatriation operation.
Q: Many of the refugees going back to Afghanistan from the Kacha Garhi camp in the Pakistani city of Peshawar are saying that they have been forced to go into an uncertain future in Afghanistan, how do you see that?
A: About one-third of the refugee population in Kacha Garhi has returned, and you can see that while visiting the camp. There were elaborate discussions between the provincial authorities and the refugee elders representing the refugee population. They were told that the Kacha Garhi camp would close at one point, because it is part of the urban development projects.
They were given the option of either relocating to one of the new camps in the Tribal Areas [in western Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan].
Some of them left the camp and perhaps settled in other places. In addition, there were very good contacts between them and the Afghan government, and some land has been offered and designated for those returning to the [eastern Afghan city of] Jalalabad.
This process has been going on for the last six to eight months. At one point, it’s a governance issue and a legitimate concern on the part of the provincial authorities that they want to reclaim the land that is inside the city.
Q: There are varying estimates of the numbers of Afghan refugees living in Pakistani cities. What are your estimates and how is your agency assisting them?
A: We assist the refugees only in terms of community assistance, education, health and water in the old camps. We do not have any assistance programmes in urban areas. The moment you start an assistance programme in urban areas, practically you create a pull factor, and you may end up assisting large populations, refugees or otherwise.
We know that large number of Afghans lived in urban areas. The only figures that I can rely on are the figures that were provided in early 2001 by the government when they undertook an elaborate census. In that count, in early 2001, the figure was 1.6 million.
Out of this population, more than 1.35 million are very well-documented returns to Afghanistan from the urban areas. For the population in the camps, we are more or less in agreement with the government, the figure is 1.4 or 1.5 million, including the camps established after 11 September.
Whatever the numbers are, we will continue repatriation from the urban areas, because we have received requests from the urban areas in Peshawar and [the southern port city of] Karachi. As a matter of fact, Karachi has remained open, and we have [had] some limited movements in March, and our understanding is that this is one place where repatriation may pick up this year.
Q: A lot of Afghans, particularly those living in Pakistani cities such as the capital, Islamabad, and its twin city, Rawalpindi, and Karachi, complain of harassment by Pakistani police. Is this an issue for UNHCR?
A: We do address that very effectively. What we do is that every time we have such instances, we bring them to the attention of the authorities. The general approach is that now we have a tripartite agreement [between UNHCR and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan], which specifies that return will be in a three-year time frame, and specifically emphasises the importance of voluntarism, this kind of harassment is contrary to the provisions found in this agreement and also to the spirit of cooperation that exists between the two countries.
I don’t think this is the government’s policy. There may be acts of overzealousness, and some acts, which are also the result of the security concerns, which are not to be neglected. With the news that that Afghans in prisons are going to be released, I see this in a more positive direction.
We have also established some legal advice centres with NGOs, and refugees are able to go there and get help. From looking into their records, we can see that these are very successful.
Q: How are you addressing the problem of drug abuse in Afghan refugees camps, particularly by women?
A: I am aware of this, and this is a worrying development. The only way we can address that, apart from the medical services that we already have there, it’s essential to have social counselling. In both provinces we have a fairly effective social counselling network. We are also working with the other concerned UN agencies on that.
But in view of the size of the population, and they are also scattered in some 300 camps, it will be presumptuous on my part to claim that we have reached each and every case. Our social workers, however, have been doing a good job in this respect. This problem arises out of idleness and loneliness, especially for women who do not have a community support system.
Q: What is happening with the thousands of Afghans stranded along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan in Chaman?
A: About 7,000 of these people were relocated to Zhare Dasht, and this morning I was reading a very encouraging piece of news from Afghanistan saying that 70 families from Zhare Dasht had opted to return to their areas of origin.
For the rest, we have been trying to persuade this population that they should avail [themselves of] the assistance offered for repatriation, and that avenue is still open. So far, we [have] had a limited success, because there are still about 80,000 [in Chaman]. The consensus between us and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan is that this situation should not be allowed to linger for too long. So we need to find a solution [at the]latest by the end of this summer.
Q: After the tripartite agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR, how optimistic are you that finally this long-standing refugee problem will be resolved?
A: The tripartite agreement foresees a three-year time frame for repatriation, which is realistic, taking into account difficulties faced in terms of absorption of large populations in Afghanistan. It also considers the fact that development projects have to start in earnest, and that there are some important labour-intensive schemes under way. So the more we move towards 2004, the prospects look better.
But return also depends on the perception that refugees have about Afghanistan. It’s not only an economic or integration problem, it is a security problem, and that is why the High Commissioner was so keen in going to northern Afghanistan to make sure that discrimination against certain categories of refugees will be stopped.
We are certainly much more optimistic than a few years ago. Perhaps less optimistic then a year ago when thousands and thousands of refugees were crossing and we thought they would be gone in two years. The direction is clear, hopefully we are moving towards the solution of the problem rather than its perpetuation.
Themes: (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs
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