Afghan refugees vow to stay put
1. April 2007, 15:54

By M Ilyas Khan, BBC News
Mohammad Khalid, 20, has registered himself as an Afghan national with the Pakistani authorities. And this has landed him in a dilemma.

The process of registration came after Pakistan declared that all Afghan refugees must return to their homes in three years' time.

But for Mr Khalid, home is the Katchagarhi refugee camp on the western outskirts of Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

"I was born and raised here. I don't have any other home to go to," he says.

Naseerullah Sargardan, 22, shares this dilemma. "It is mind-boggling to be told that the place where you spent your childhood is not your home," he says.

Legal limbo

The problem is typical of a very large segment of the refugee population in Pakistan, says an official of the Pakistani refugee agency, the Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees (Car).

"More than half of the 2.2 million refugees who have registered... so far were either born here or migrated at a very young age," he says.

Most of them have never set foot inside Afghanistan, and have lost their fathers and other close relatives in the decade-long war against the invading Soviet troops in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

"They have nothing to go back to in Afghanistan, and would stay on in Pakistan if given a choice," he says.

But choice is what these young men don't have. For one, the refugees in Pakistan have no legal status, and therefore no protection against arbitrary acts of government.

"This is because Pakistan is not a signatory to various international conventions and protocols on refugees, and there is no national legislation on the issue," explains Afrasiab Khattak, a lawyer and human rights activist.

Secondly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appears to have resigned itself to the Pakistani policy of "forced" repatriation of refugees as opposed to its own policy of "voluntary" repatriation.

"The Pakistani people have hosted the refugees for more than 25 years, and we are now ready to assist the Pakistani government in its decision to repatriate them over the next three years," says Rabia Ali, a UNHCR spokesperson in Peshawar.

Fading interest

The decision is causing unrest among the larger refugee community whose leaders are now running from pillar to post to make themselves heard.

"When the Russians invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan and the international community offered us attractive incentives to leave our homes and come to Pakistan. And we did," says Malik Azeem, an elder at the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar.

Apart from hefty daily cash allowances for each family, the international community offered the refugees full kitchen sets, an exhaustive range of edible items, clothing and generous gifts on festive occasions.

The wisdom of this policy was obvious.

The refugee camps were "places to which the mujahideen (guerrillas) could return for rest and to see their families", writes Brig Mohammad Yousaf, the man who headed the Afghan desk of Pakistan's intelligence agency during the 1980s.

In his book, The Bear Trap, he also describes the camps as "a huge reservoir of potential recruits for jihad".

International interest started to fade after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, and by the mid-1990s most assistance to schools and dispensaries had been phased out.

The Car, too, gave up maintenance of water supplies and other infrastructure in refugee camps by 2002.

In March 2006, it further stopped assistance to the remaining schools in the camps, leaving the refugee community to run them out of their own resources.

Business bonds

The latest Pakistani strategy is to close some 119 refugee camps in NWFP one by one, starting with two major camps near Peshawar, namely Katchagarhi and Jalozai. The refugees there have been asked to clear out by mid-2007.

This poses a serious problem for Mohammad Khalid, who can either take his 20-member family to his ancestral village in a lawless part of Laghman province, or go to a makeshift refugee shelter in Kabul.

The choice before Naseerullah Sargardan and numerous other heads of families who are second-generation refugees is equally daunting.

But the older generation of refugees is no less concerned, and is inclined to resist in case pressure is applied against them.

"We have told the Car officials and visitors from the UNHCR that our people have an estimated 800m rupees ($13m) invested in business in Peshawar. It is impossible to pull out this money in such short time," says Haji Noor Rahman, a community elder at Katchagarhi.

Lifelong home

Another line of argument focuses on the humanitarian aspect of their plight.

"Forcing us into a region which is still torn by war and lawlessness, where women and children are not safe, amounts to the gravest violation of human rights I can imagine," says Abdul Hakim Khan, another Katchagarhi elder.

Despite government pressure, many observers believe that in the end a sizeable refugee population will stay on in Pakistan for good.

"It took them 27 years to build this village. They have their graves here, their children go to schools and colleges. They cannot just get up and walk away from here," says a Car official based in Jalozai camp.

There may be some hope in this for second-generation refugees who have nothing left in Afghanistan.

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