Some 3,000 Afghan refugees to leave Islamabad slum for new home

UNHCR helps move some 3,000 Afghan refugees from a slum in Islamabad to an undeveloped plot of land in a green belt on the edge of the capital city.

One of the Afghan refugees talks to visitors by his tent at the new site in Islamabad.  © UNHCR/A.Shahzad

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, December 8 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has begun helping some 3,000 Afghan refugees move from a slum in the Pakistani capital to an undeveloped plot of land in a green belt on the edge of the city.

The relocation operation began last Saturday, when an initial group of 240 Afghan refugees were moved from their mud brick homes in southern Islamabad to a 472,000-square-feet plot of land about 10 minutes drive away.

The move, which is due to be completed by the end of this week, came after Islamabad's Capital Development Authority (CDA) - responsible for city planning, maintenance and expansion - agreed to move the Afghan refugees from their slum, which is slated for redevelopment as a residential area in a growing city.

UNHCR will initially provide winter tents and has been helping to instal basic services, including water and sanitation. The CDA will level the ground at the new site so that the Afghans can build houses with shelter materials provided by UNHCR. The refugees will not have title to their homes.

The CDA initially served an eviction notice on the Afghans, but agreed to find them land elsewhere after discussions with UNHCR. "The decision to provide an alternative location to the Afghan refugees shows that Pakistan . . . cares about them," said Mengesha Kebede, UNHCR's representative in Pakistan, who praised the host country for its generosity over the years to millions of refugees.

Many of the beneficiaries of the scheme are daily wage labourers, such as 29-year-old Gul Khan. Like others interviewed, he welcomed the move, noting that the refugees were worried when they originally received orders to vacate their mud houses in the slum, where he had lived since the age of 10.

"But the new decision to offer us a piece of land where we are being helped to build a new shelter is a welcome step," said Khan, who works in an Islamabad fruit market. "It is very difficult to sustain a living these days," he noted.

Ghulam Nabi and his large family also moved to the new site over the weekend. "Our place [in the slum] was very crowded; imagine 15 family members living in a single tent," he said, referring to the makeshift shelter of plastic sheets and old cloths that he moved out of. "It was terrible," he said.

Pakistan is home to some 1.7 million registered Afghans and slightly more than half of them live outside refugee camps, mostly in urban centres.

By Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Pakistan