The United Nations on Wednesday has expressed concern over a decision by Pakistan's government to close four Afghan refugee camps in the border areas due to security concerns.
“We understand the government’s need to ensure security at the border, and we maintain that the refugee camps must retain their civilian nature. But, at the same time the authorities should not compromise genuine humanitarian needs in the name of security,” Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said on Wednesday in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.If camp closures go ahead, refugees must be given the option of voluntary repatriation or relocation to an existing camp in Pakistan, Tan said, adding: “We are ready to facilitate that.”
This week, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Mahmood Ali Durrani, said two camps would be closed in March, followed by two more later in the year.
The move follows heavy criticism that Islamabad had not been doing enough to prevent cross-border infiltrations along the country’s porous 2,500km border with Afghanistan. Pakistan asserts that the camps are being used by elements not interested in peace and stability in either country.
According to UNHCR, Pakistan hosts 2.6 million Afghans, half of whom live in agency-administered camps, while the rest live in urban and rural settlements across the country.
The four Afghan refugee facilities due to be closed include two in Pakistan's southern Balochistan province and another two in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), home to nearly 250,000 Afghan exiles.
Initially, the two refugee camps in NWFP were due to close in 2004, while the other two in Balochistan were named in 2005. However, the closures were then postponed until 2007.
Meanwhile, an Afghan registration campaign has been extended for a second time by Pakistani authorities until 2 February to cope with the overwhelming turnout at registration centres.
The drive is aimed at providing millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan with official identification for a three-year period. Registered Afghans over the age of five receive Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, recognising the bearers as Afghan citizens temporarily living in the country, while children under five are listed on their mother's card.
The ongoing registration effort is a follow-up to a comprehensive Afghan census conducted in Pakistan in February and March 2005, which found that more than three million Afghans were living in the country.
Until recently only Afghans counted in last year’s census could take part in the current registration, but in December it was decided that all Afghans holding documented evidence of living in the country at the time of the census should participate.
Documentary evidence can range from an Afghan identity card called a 'Tazkeera', any health or school records, rent agreements and utility bills in Pakistan, or a voter registration card issued by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) for the out-of-country Afghan presidential election of 2004. About 738,000 Afghan refugees were registered by IOM for the polls inside Pakistan.
Since the campaign began in mid-October, more than 1.5 million Afghans have registered with Pakistani authorities across the country.
Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority is conducting the exercise, using fingerprint biometrics and photos to record information through fixed and mobile registration centres across the country with the support of the government’s Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees and UNHCR.
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