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IRIN, March 15, 2009

AFGHANISTAN: Limited scope to absorb more refugees

Many in these makeshift camps live in difficult circumstances and regret having returned to Afghanistan

Life for Jamaluddin’s family was much better when they lived as refugees in Pakistan in the 1990s; things have got worse since they returned to Afghanistan in 2008. “In Pakistan, there were work opportunities for me and I could earn enough to feed my children,” Jamaluddin told IRIN, adding that he could not afford to buy food after they had returned to Afghanistan because he was jobless.

At the height of their exodus, Afghans made up the world's largest refugee population with 8 million people in more than 70 countries. More than 5 million of these people have returned home since 2002, according to the U.N.
, Nov. 18, 2009

Like millions of other Afghans, war and fear of death forced Jamaluddin to flee to Pakistan.

“We had a house in Jalozai camp [North West Frontier Province, Pakistan] but it was destroyed by Pakistani forces,” he said.

Jalozai was the largest Afghan refugee settlement but was demolished in June 2008 and its settlers were told either to go to their home country or move to other locations inside Pakistan.

Insecurity, land disputes and lack of jobs have stopped tens of thousands of returnees from moving to their original areas and rebuilding their houses. Some households, including Jamaluddin’s, have set up tents and mud huts in different parts of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.

Many in these makeshift camps live in difficult circumstances and regret having returned to Afghanistan.

UNHCR to help more refugees return

The return of about five million refugees from Pakistan and Iran since 2002 has been hailed as a significant achievement of the Hamid Karzai government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The UNHCR says the repatriation of Afghan refugees in the past seven years is “the single largest return programme” in the organisation’s history.

After a winter pause, UNHCR will resume the voluntary return drive from Pakistan on 15 March and has plans to assist 220,000 refugees until the end of 2009. UNHCR’s assistance programme for the voluntary return of refugees from Iran has been functioning all year round, without a winter pause.

Refugees will be helped to return amid a marked deterioration in Afghanistan’s overall security, economic and humanitarian situation.

“We do not have the capacity to absorb large numbers of returnees,” Shamsuddin Hamid, a spokesman for the Ministry of Refugees and Returnees’ Affairs, told IRIN.

“The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly since 2006, particularly on the security front. Afghanistan is also one of the poorest countries in the world and people have very little access to basic services such as health, education and livelihoods,” Ingrid MacDonald, protection and advocacy manager of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), told IRIN in Kabul.

UNHCR said the nature of the repatriation had been voluntary and refugees had the freedom of choice to return to Afghanistan or stay in host countries.

“It is our view that giving refugees the freedom and opportunity to make an informed choice is critical to the sustainability of return,” Ewen MacLeod, UNHCR representative, told IRIN, adding that the return programme was influenced by a range of political, security, economic and social factors.

About 2.7 million Afghan refugees are currently registered in Pakistan and Iran. There are also many Afghan labour migrants in both neighbouring countries but their precise number is unknown.

Tougher refugee policies

Millions of Afghan refugees were hosted in Pakistan and Iran in the 1980s and 1990s when the country was first invaded by the former Soviet Union and subsequently plunged into internecine armed conflicts.

However, over the past few years both countries have toughened refugee policies and agreed to host only registered Afghans in foreseeable future.

Iran has been renewing Afghan refugees’ residence permits every six months, and those in Pakistan will have to renew theirs in December 2009, according to UNHCR.

Discussions facilitated by the UNHCR were scheduled in March between the Afghan and Pakistani authorities to discuss the fate of over 1.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan beyond December 2009 when their existing residence permits expire, a source who preferred anonymity told IRIN.

The Pakistani government - which is under pressure from the Afghan government, the USA and other countries to tackle extremists on its territory - has indicated it wants to put an end to the presence of Afghan refugees in its North West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces.

Iran ordered all Afghan refugees to leave Sistan and Baluchistan provinces in 2008, apparently for security reasons.

Category: Poverty, Refugees/IDPs - Views: 6734