The government of Pakistan is considering provincial plans to close a number of Afghan refugee camps, according to officials.
“We had requested the provincial governments to come up with certain realistic plans for the closure of camps and for voluntary repatriation during 2008,” Imran Zeb, the government’s commissioner for Afghan refugees, told IRIN in Islamabad.
“They have prepared their own plans, but as yet we have not received them formally,” he said. Once they are received at the federal level, discussions would be held with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Afghan government to determine their feasibility, he said.
According to the UNHCR, there are over 80 Afghan refugee camps in the country, including 71 in the country’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and 12 in Balochistan - both bordering Afghanistan - as well as one in the Punjab Province.
The camp closure issue remains a contentious one in Pakistan, which still hosts over two million Afghan refugees - one million of whom live in camps - more than seven years after the collapse of the Taliban regime in December 2001.
In 2006, the planned closure of four camps - Girdi Jungle, Jungle Pir Alizai, Katchagari and Jalozai - did not materialise, although Katchagari in NWFP was closed in 2007.
Jalozai, in NWFP, was rescheduled to close in 2007, but did not do so. “We only managed to repatriate around 25 percent of the camp[’s inmates], but due to Ramadan and winter, we delayed the rest to 2008,” Zeb said. “Now we plan to close it by 30 April.”
That too, however, may prove difficult, with many still believing that conditions inside their home country are still not right to make their return sustainable. Most Afghans continue to cite insecurity in Afghanistan as the main barrier to their return.
“Based on the reality on the ground, we will begin,” Zeb said, referring to the closures, stressing, however: “There would be no forceful eviction, there will be no forceful closure, and there would be no repatriation unless it is voluntary”.
How many camps might be closed?
As for how many camps might be closed, that remains to be seen.
Pressed on reports that NWFP alone planned to close 11 camps this year, he replied: “I know what these camps are, but since the plans are still informal, I cannot comment on them.”
Since March 2002, over 3.4 million Afghans have returned to their homeland, most with the assistance of the UNHCR which gave out a small monetary grant and covered transport costs to their place of origin.
In the first year of the programme, more than 1.5 million Afghans made the journey back, but the rate of return has since decreased, though according to the UNHCR, more returned in 2007 (350,000) than in 2006 (133,000).
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions