Reality-based drama helps Afghans understand refugee rights

News Stories, 18 August 2008

© UNHCR/A.Shahzad
Afghans in Chakri village watch their compatriots perform a drama on refugee rights in Pakistan.

CHAKRI, Pakistan, August 18 (UNHCR) Two young men are walking along the streets of a Pakistani city when they are stopped by policemen. Asked for their identification, they panic and an argument ensues. Eventually one of them produces a card identifying him as a registered Afghan. His friend, also an Afghan, doesn't have documents and is arrested.

This could have happened anywhere in Pakistan, especially in today's heightened security climate. However, this particular scene was part of a "theatre for development" project staged by Struggle for Change (SACH), a Pakistani non-governmental organization working with the UN refugee agency to sensitize Afghans on their rights and obligations as refugees.

Today, the drama team of seven Afghans has come to the village of Chakri, not far from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. A crowd of Afghan men and boys have gathered and are watching with great interest.

On stage, the detained actor is released after his community representative vouches for him and pays a fine. The young man is let off with a warning: If he is caught loitering without documents again, he could be deported to Afghanistan.

It's a stark message that leaves the audience divided. Many of them had participated in a government registration of Afghans in Pakistan between October 2006 and February 2007, receiving Proof of Registration (PoR) cards that grant them temporary stay until the end of 2009. Others did not register despite repeated reminders and deadline extensions, and are now subject to the laws of Pakistan.

Mohammad Amin, 62, fled his hometown in eastern Afghanistan's Paktya province in 1979. "We are very happy with UNHCR's work to give us PoR cards," he said. "With the card, I can do my business and go to other cities in Pakistan without harassment."

Another spectator, Akber Khan, explained, "The card shows our identity, which we can easily show to the police. But it will expire at the end of next year, and I really don't know what our future in Pakistan will be like. I will repatriate eventually, when there is peace in Afghanistan."

In the post-drama discussion, Afghans without PoR cards wanted to know if they could register for the cards now, but were informed by SACH staff that the exercise was closed and would not be reopened. Other members of the audience asked for more information on repatriation procedures and assistance for registered Afghans.

"We use theatre for development as a tool to raise awareness on a range of issues affecting the Afghan community. It focuses on daily practicalities and is easy to understand," said Khalida Salami, the executive director of SACH, about the community-based, interactive approach. "Our team performs on different topics such as police harassment, torture, sexual and gender-based violence against women and children."

But it is not just the refugees who need information and sensitization. UNHCR and its partners have conducted numerous workshops for law enforcement authorities in Pakistan's major cities to help them become more aware of refugees' situation, rights and obligations.

There are currently some 1.8 million registered Afghans living in Pakistan.

By Asif Shahzad in Chakri, Pakistan




UNHCR country pages

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The cycle of life has started again in Afghanistan as returnees put their shoulders to the wheel to rebuild their war-torn country.

Return is only the first step on Afghanistan's long road to recovery. UNHCR is helping returnees settle back home with repatriation packages, shelter kits, mine-awareness training and vaccination against diseases. Slowly but surely, Afghans across the land are reuniting with loved ones, reconstructing homes, going back to school and resuming work. A new phase in their lives has begun.

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With elections scheduled in October, 2004 is a crucial year for the future of Afghanistan, and Afghans are returning to their homeland in record numbers. In the first seven months of 2004 alone, more than half a million returned from exile. In all, more than 3.6 million Afghans have returned since UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme started in 2002.

The UN refugee agency and its partner organisations are working hard to help the returnees rebuild their lives in Afghanistan. Returnees receive a grant to cover basic needs, as well as access to medical facilities, immunisations and landmine awareness training.

UNHCR's housing programme provides tool kits and building supplies for families to build new homes where old ones have been destroyed. The agency also supports the rehabilitation of public buildings as well as programmes to rehabilitate the water supply, vocational training and cash-for-work projects.

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Beyond the smiles of homecoming lie the harsh realities of return. With more than 5 million Afghans returning home since 2002, Afghanistan's absorption capacity is reaching saturation point.

Landmine awareness training at UNHCR's encashment centres – their first stop after returning from decades in exile – is a sombre reminder of the immense challenges facing this war-torn country. Many returnees and internally displaced Afghans are struggling to rebuild their lives. Some are squatting in tents in the capital, Kabul. Basic needs like shelter, land and safe drinking water are seldom met. Jobs are scarce, and long queues of men looking for work are a common sight in marketplaces.

Despite the obstacles, their spirit is strong. Returning Afghans – young and old, women and men – seem determined to do their bit for nation building, one brick at a time.

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