The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is temporarily closing its voluntary repatriation centres (VRCs) in Pakistan. The announcement follows a deadly attack in the southeastern Afghan city of Ghazni this weekend, in which a UN international staff member was killed and a local staff member wounded.
"We are going to close temporarily the repatriation centres in Peshawar and Quetta until the security situation is clarified," Jack Redden, a spokesman for the agency, told IRIN from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad on Monday, referring to the two western Pakistani cities in which the centres were located. "We can't process people who then have to go to encashment centres in Afghanistan which might not be open."
The move follows the death of UNHCR staff member Bettina Goislard, a 29-year-old French national, who was killed on Sunday when two men on a motorcycle opened fire on an agency vehicle in the centre of Ghazni city, killing her and wounding her driver. The two attackers have been arrested, and an investigation is now under way.
Redden's comments coincide with a statement by the refugee agency issued the same day stating that it was suspending its operations in Ghazni Province, 150 km south of the Afghan capital, Kabul, pending a security review of the situation on the ground. The agency has some 782 staff members in the country, 87 of whom are international staff members.
The attack, the first such incident involving a UN international staff member since the fall of the Taliban two years ago, has brought sharp condemnation from the UN. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was reportedly "distressed and angered to learn of the cold-blooded killing", which he called "outrageous and contemptible", a spokesman said. Meanwhile, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers condemned the attack as "yet another dastardly assault on an innocent humanitarian worker".
The attack comes less than a week after a bombing in front of the UN offices in the southern city of Kandahar, and follows a series of other incidents directed against UN and aid agencies.
"The secretary-general believes this latest incident underscores the urgent need for the international community to provide stronger security in areas outside the capital, Kabul," the spokesman said, calling on the Afghan government and the world at large to take the necessary measures to ensure the safety and security of UN and other personnel providing assistance for the reconstruction of a peaceful Afghanistan.
What remains to be seen, however, is what impact this will have on the repatriation process as a whole. "The security situation inside Afghanistan is under review. We don't know what Kabul [UNHCR] will decide on the Afghan operations," Redden said.
Since the start of the voluntary repatriation effort in March 2002, UNHCR has assisted close to 2 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan to return. As part of the effort, participants who register for the programme at either the Peshawar or Quetta VRC are provided with food and non-food related assistance, as well as a small cash grant.
To date this year, just over 340,000 of them have returned. "At this time of year, the numbers have dropped," Redden said, referring to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the onset of winter. "Only a couple of hundred people are making the journey back on a daily basis."
Asked when operations would resume, Redden emphasised that there would be a disruption, but this was just temporary pending a further clarification of what facilities would be available inside Afghanistan.
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
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