Nearly 83,000 Afghan refugees return home from Pakistan this year
Publisher: Xinhua News Agency
Story date: 05/12/2012
Language: English

ISLAMABAD, Dec. 5 (Xinhua) – The UN refugee agency said Wednesday that nearly 83,000 Afghan refugees have returned home this year through its assisted voluntary repatriation program, a 24 percent increase from 2011.

In November this year, more than 8,200 refugees returned from Pakistan, compared with some 3,000 a year earlier. However, Pakistan is still hosting some 1.65 million Afghan refugees and another 1 million undocumented Afghans, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

Voluntary repatriation remains the UNHCR's preferred solution globally for most refugees. Since 2002, around 5.7 million Afghan refugees have returned to their home country, constituting nearly a quarter of the country's population. Nevertheless, Pakistan and Iran are still generously hosting some 2.7 million Afghan refugees after three decades, a UNHCR statement said.

The Pakistani government is holding informal consultations to formulate the policy beyond Dec. 31, 2012, a date set for the Afghan refugees to return homes.

Pakistan has issued Proof of Registration Cards (PoRs) to Afghan refugees that will expire on Dec. 31 and the government has not yet decided to extend its period. Pakistan said that it will treat all Afghan refugees as illegal immigrants after the expiry of PoRs.

Pakistani Minister for States and Frontier Regions, Engineer Shaukatullah Khan, whose ministry also deals with the refugees affairs, concluded a three-day visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday and has assured the Afghan leaders that Pakistan will not forcibly expel Afghans.

The minister also called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai and expressed his commitment to the voluntary return of Afghan refugees to their homeland, while also hoping that the Pakistani government will soon agree to a mechanism in this respect for voluntary and dignified return. During this meeting, emphasis was made on the voluntary nature of return by the president, the UNHCR said.

The minister also saw first-hand the implementation of the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Returnees (SSAR) in Afghanistan, and the conditions in which refugee returns are taking place.

Together with Dr. Jamaher Anwary, minister for Refugees and Repatriation, he visited two high-return areas where they met returnees from Pakistan. They were also accompanied by representatives of the UNHCR in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Neill Wright, UNHCR representative in Pakistan.

The delegations met with recently returned refugees from Pakistan and witnessed the many needs still faced by the returnees as winter approaches, despite several already completed projects, including a new school that was under construction at the time.

Voluntary repatriation and sustainable reintegration are at the center of the SSAR that was endorsed at an international conference in Geneva in May 2012. "However, we need development funding and development actors to urgently become more engaged in supporting sustainable reintegration for refugees, through the implementation of this strategy, "said Dr. Anwary.

Persecution claims ignored, say deportees
Publisher: The Sydney Morning Herald
Author: Ben Doherty NEGOMBO, SRI LANKA and Bianca Hall
Story date: 05/12/2012
Language: English

ASYLUM SEEKERS who were forcibly deported from Australia say the federal government ignored their claims of persecution, granting them only one brief interview in detention and knowingly sending them back to danger in Sri Lanka.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says their forcible deportation and subsequent imprisonment raises "troubling concerns" with Australia's asylum processes.

Fairfax Media met members of the latest group of 50 men expelled from Australia – 38 Tamils and 12 Sinhalese who were deported on Friday – after they were bailed from Negombo court, on Sri Lanka's west coast.

It comes as the Australian government agreed in the High Court on Wednesday to reconsider the refugee claims of 56 Tamil men due to be deported this week. The men had previously been "screened out" of the refugee process, but launched a legal bid to have their claims heard.

In Negombo, a returned Tamil man from Batticaloa, Megaraj Suresh, said he had been harassed and beaten by Sri Lankan "government people" because he campaigned for the opposition Tamil National Alliance. He was previously jailed for his political activism but, he said, Australia did not listen to his claim.

"I had only one interview to determine my case, they had already decided to send us back," he said. "They didn't do proper research, they didn't care about my circumstance, or even look at my documents, they were not honest in their assessment."

A spokesman for the UNHCR in Canberra said the agency was troubled by the way Australia was processing people's claims.

"In principle, UNHCR has no objection to the return of people found clearly not to need international protection," he said. "However, the first step must be a fair and accurate process to assess any protection claims that are raised. The current procedures raise troubling questions as to both fairness and accuracy which we have raised with the Australian government."

An immigration department spokesman would not respond to specific questions about screening, saying: "The department does not discuss specifics of its discussions with clients."

But, he said: "The removal of these people was consistent with Australia's non-refoulement obligations [not to return people to danger].

"Since May 2012 there has been an increasing number of people outlining that their reasons for coming to Australia were based on economic concerns. The process and then removal of people who make economic claims or who otherwise make unfounded claims for protection is consistent with Australia's obligations."

Mr Suresh said he now feared for his life and for his family.

"The criminal investigation department has my details now, the number of my house where I live, my phone number, everything. I have great fear for my life. I don't know what I will do. I needed Australia to help me, but they just sent me back to danger.

"Now I wait for when the white van will come for me."

Unmarked white vans, driving without number plates, are notorious in Sri Lanka for snatching people, usually political opponents of the government, from the street or their homes.

The Australian Tamil Congress spokesman, Bala Vigneswaran, said one of the men marked for return contacted him to say he feared for his life if he returned to post-war Sri Lanka.

Mr Vigneswaran said the man told him: "They talked to me for only five minutes.

"I tried to tell [the official] that I am a refugee and please help me, and she said: 'No, I am not here to hear all those stories, you are going'."

Mr Vigneswaran said: "And he kneeled down and begged and cried and they said, 'please leave now', and he came back [from the screening interview] after only three minutes."

Leading refugee lawyer David Manne said "if Australia were to summarily expel someone without due process who had expressed fears of being persecuted that would amount to a flagrant violation and a flagrant rejection of our obligations under the Refugee Convention".

"The concern here is not that all of these people are refugees – they may or may not be – the concern is that we don't know because they have been denied basic due process."

The Sri Lankan government refutes all allegations that anyone, particularly the ethnic minority Tamil population, faces any mistreatment.

Salvos accused of silencing asylum seekers
Publisher: AAP, Australian Associated Press
Story date: 05/12/2012
Language: English

Asylum seekers on Nauru are being stopped from communicating their plight to families or media because their internet access has been restricted, a refugee advocacy group says.

Asylum seekers supervised by the Salvation Army on Nauru are only allowed 30 minutes of internet time every two days, the refugees action collective said.

They are also prohibited from giving friends use of their quota, helping one another with the internet or even using spare computers.

Those in the Nauru detention centre had agreed to forgo their internet quota so Mahdi Vakili, an Iranian refugee, could have four hours a day to disseminate information about conditions in the facility via Facebook.

"Using the internet has often been the only way asylum seekers on Nauru have been able to communicate their horrific conditions and publicise their protests and hunger strikes, as media have been barred from the detention centre," Refugee Action Collective spokesman Chris Been said.

"This measure is sadly in step with the government's policy of pushing asylum seekers out of sight and out of mind through the policy of offshore processing and dumping asylum seekers on Nauru."

The new restrictions will cut Ms Vakili's ability to correspond with media, thus preventing government spin from being challenged, Mr Breen said.

A spokesman for the Salvation Army told AAP the move was not designed to censor or restrict communications, but to make access to the limited number of computers on the island more equitable.

"There's just not enough time throughout the day and there's also not enough bandwidth for us to distribute the internet for as long as each person wants," he said.

The refugee action collective will protest the quota cuts outside the Salvation Army City Temple in central Sydney on Friday.

Comment was being sought from the Immigration Department.

A department of immigration spokesman told AAP the changes had been made so all in the Nauru detention centre had internet access.

"Arrangements have been made to ensure that each person has equal opportunity to book their time on a PC," he said.

Requests for additional time would be considered if interest levels dropped, he added.

80 refugee huts burnt to ground
Publisher: The Katmandu Post
Author: Chetan Adhikari
Story date: 05/12/2012
Language: English

DAMAK, Dec. 5 – A fire engulfed a Bhutanese refugee camp in Beldangi, Jhapa, on Tuesday, destroying more than 80 huts. About 600 refugees have been homeless in the wake of the inferno.

Police said that the fire started at Hut No 21 occupied by Tirtharaj Poudel in Sector C 4 in Beldangi II. According to witnesses, the blaze had been triggered by the explosion of a cooking gas cylinder.

The fire broke out at around 1:30pm. It took two hours for four fire engines, security personnel and the locals to douse the fire. The security personnel and the locals pulled down 35 other huts to stop the fire from catching other huts.

There was no human casualty. However, the fire killed scores of animals and poultry in the camp. "It is too early to ascertain the total loss of property as we are assessing the damage," said camp Secretary DB Subba.

The fire victims were complaining about the damage. Some said cash and documents including those for third country settlement were destroyed.

"The fire burnt Rs 300,000 and killed two goats," lamented Ratna Bahadur Adhikari. The victims are taking shelter at the local Panchawati Secondary School. The children and the elderly are shivering in the cold.

District Administration Office, Jhapa, provided Rs 2,000 to each of the families whose huts were burnt down. The local administration gave Rs 1,500 to each family whose huts were pulled down.

Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme and other donor agencies held a meeting and decided to take initiatives to provide food, shelter and clothes for the needy.

New resettlement center opens for N.K. defectors
Publisher: The Korea Herald
Author: Shin Hyon-hee
Story date: 05/12/2012
Language: English

A new resettlement center for North Korean defectors opened on Wednesday to accommodate a growing influx of refugees and provide improved assimilation education and support.

Located in Hwacheon, Gangwon Province, the second Hanawon will house up to 500 people in 10 units in a 15,000-square-meter area, increasing the total hosting capacity to 1,100 across the country.

"The new resettlement center was built to prepare ourselves for the steadily increasing defector inflow and carry out advanced education," the Unification Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry is in charge of protection and training at five such institutions including the first Hanawon center, which opened in 1999 in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province, to help asylum seekers adapt to the capitalist South and stand on their own feet. Under a 1997 North Korean refugee law, the central and local governments provide support in housing, education and job training.

The government has poured 34 billion won ($31.4 million) into establishing the new facility since July 2011.

It will offer not only the mandatory three-month training but also reeducation for graduates and upper-level lessons for highly educated North Koreans, the ministry said.

The new center will also facilitate programs for male defectors, while the first Hanawon continues to serve women and children. The ministry had been striving for segregated training in line with U.N. recommendations.

The project reflects a recent surge in North Koreans who cross the border to escape hunger and oppression in their homeland.

A stone monument stands in the new Hanawon complex with an inscription that reads, "This is a new home for North Korean defectors who come to the Republic of Korea to pursue their dreams and freedom." (Yonhap News)

Despite tightening border controls and harsh penalties, the annual tally has been hovering between 2,400 and 3,000 since 2007, ministry data shows. Nearly 70 percent are female and about 74 percent are younger than 50.

More than 2,700 North Koreans took refuge here last year, up about 12.7 percent from a year ago. The collective figure has topped 24,300 since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Officials expect the exodus to persist in the coming years. Seoul estimates that tens of thousands of North Koreans are hiding in China currently aspiring to move into the South and other countries.

The ministry has expanded the Hanawon center twice before, in 2003 and 2008, increasing the capacity from the initial 150 people to 600. It is expected to transfer services from three other smaller branches running in rented spaces on the outskirts of Seoul to cut costs and stabilize operation.

The ministry is also providing 5.7 billion won to build a stadium at Hanawon as early as the end of 2013 to improve trainees' health and promote various programs.

However, the plan for the new Hanawon met with stiff public opposition since the site selection process in early 2009.

A bulk of 24 candidate towns witnessed the rise of the "not-in-my-backyard" movement. Residents in some regions furiously claimed that they would not let their children study in the same class with the offspring of "red commies."

After talks with government officials and touring the first Hanawon, opponents eventually changed their minds and started seeing advantages the facility may bring, ministry officials said.

"There was an atmosphere in which people saw the resettlement center as a place like a refugee camp or prison," a ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

Seoul's overall defector policy has also been subject to debate as critics cast doubt on its effectiveness, saying that many Hanawon graduates are still struggling to adjust here.

The government offers each defector 19 million won for resettlement, in addition to financial aid worth up to 21.4 million won for vocational training and preparation.

Other support programs include health insurance and subsidies for low-income earners.

The ministry's defector-related spending neared 124 billion won this year, taking up about 60 percent of its entire budget. With expenses by provincial governments taken into account, its share of public coffers should be much greater.

Still, defectors here have reported a wide range of social and financial problems. Cultural and educational gaps could take years to overcome. Prejudice among South Koreans is another factor as politics and ideology frame them despite their ethnicity.

"It still remains questionable whether the public fund is well distributed to actually improve the livelihoods of the defectors," said Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Center who defected to the South in 1979, in an earlier interview with The Korea Herald.

"The authorities are trying to increase the number of counseling centers, resting places and other facilities with state organizations trying to yield good achievements from them. It is just window dressing, not welcomed by the defectors."

A 2011 survey of 8,299 defectors by the North Korean Refugees Foundation showed that more than 30 percent earn less than 1 million won a month. Their jobless rate averaged 12.1 percent ¯ more than triple the population's 3.7 percent.

Some opt to head for a third country such as the U.S., Britain or Australia, seeking to access a better social safety net and to break free from social exclusion and cutthroat competition with better-off, highly educated South Koreans in an already saturated job market.

In extreme cases, at least five defectors returned to their impoverished homeland and held news conferences this year, stoking speculation and concerns over their resettlement and adaptability here.

But others emphasize that no matter how much state money is given, defectors should also make substantive efforts to be self-reliant.

"Everyone goes through a period of adjusting to cultural differences, social prejudice and so on," said Kang Chul-ho, a Christian minister who fled the North in 1992.

"But more importantly, you'd better strive to learn and get used to the society you are in. How can the government take care of so many defectors forever?"

Refugees Daily
Refugees Global Press Review
Compiled by Media Relations and Public Information Service, UNHCR
For UNHCR Internal Distribution