Police clashed with Afghan refugees earlier this week as the authorities began the process of closing down Jalozai refugee camp, home to over 70,000 people, outside Peshawar.
Refugee leaders at the camp, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the Afghan government had agreed Jalozai camp would formally close on 15 April.
But as personnel ordered to close the camp moved in on the morning of 15 April, some 400 or so refugees resisted police. They pelted bulldozers and armoured vehicles.
Students from the area reportedly joined forces with the refugees. “These people cannot return yet because of the bitter cold in Afghanistan,” Naeem Khan, 20, a student told IRIN. Protesting students also set tyres ablaze and blocked a road near the camp.
About 500 shops at the camp were demolished and power and water supplies suspended. Most of the makeshift homes at Jalozai have been dismantled in recent months. The demolition operation is continuing and is expected to last several days.
“The use of force against refugees is unfortunate. We have always opposed it,” said Imran Khan, provincial coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in Peshawar.
As part of the government's plan, camp residents have the option of returning to their homeland (taking advantage of UNHCR assistance) or relocating to other camps inside the Punjab or North West Frontier Province.
The camp is one of over 100 such sites set up for Afghan refugees who poured into Pakistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion of their country. Many of Jalozai's residents have lived in the camp, one of the oldest in Pakistan, for decades.
The Pakistani authorities say most Afghans still in the country are “economic refugees” and that some camps had become hiding places for militants. Over the past five years the government has been calling for the closure of large camps for Afghan refugees, calling them a haven for “terrorists” and criminal activities.
|A grocery shop in Jalozai camp, where some 70,000 Afghan refugees still live|
Towards the end of 2007, the UNHCR urged the Pakistan government to wait until 2008 before closing the camp due to severe weather in Afghanistan. At the time, Federal Secretary for States and Frontier Regions Sajid Hussain Chattha said: “All Afghan refugees have to leave Pakistan and go back to their motherland with dignity and honour.” Action to close down the camp has been delayed.
In recent weeks, over 3,000 camp residents have voluntarily returned to their homeland, according to UNHCR.
Meanwhile, the UNHCR temporarily suspended repatriation efforts through Peshawar after a road blockade due by a dispute between local tribes along the Peshawar-Torkham highway left hundreds of home-bound Afghans stranded.
"The UNHCR acknowledges that Jalozai must be closed as previously agreed and that its residents must cooperate by leaving on time," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said. "Nonetheless, we hope the Pakistani government can give them a little more time in view of the current impasse on the Peshawar-Torkham road."
According to the UNHCR, nearly two million Afghans remain in the country - one million of whom live in camps - more than seven years after the collapse of the Taliban regime in December 2001. There are over 80 Afghan refugee camps in the country, including 71 in NWFP, 12 in Balochistan Province and one in Punjab Province.
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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