Twilight for remote Pakistan camp as refugees move out
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, March 9 (UNHCR) - Efforts are underway to close Shalman refugee camp near Pakistan's Khyber Pass as its residents start leaving either for home in Afghanistan or for another camp nearby.
On Tuesday, the first relocation convoy carrying 402 Afghan refugees from Shalman camp snaked its way through the mountains of the Khyber Agency and on to Kotkai camp, in a more hospitable region further north.
Shalman was chosen - as part of a programme to consolidate camps established to shelter Afghans fleeing the war that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States - because of its shrinking population and a waterless location where it was difficult and expensive to provide assistance.
"The security situation in my area of Afghanistan is normal," said Abdul Razak, a 42-year-old father of four who was on the buses heading to Kotkai. "But poverty and some local disputes at home made me decide to relocate to Kotkai."
The UNHCR convoy, the first of what will be daily movements to Kotkai, consisted of six buses and 13 trucks to carry the belongings of the 56 families, including the poles to help construct new mud houses. The escort included two ambulances.
UNHCR had prepared facilities for the arriving refugees at Kotkai, which has extra space because many refugees had left for home under the agency's voluntary repatriation programme over the last two years. Initially those transferred from Shalman will stay in tents while preparing new houses.
About 300,000 refugees flooded out of Afghanistan in late 2001 to escape the fighting, but the total in the "new" camps like Shalman and Kotkai built to shelter them has shrunk to about 200,000. There are 15 "new" camps in Pakistan, including Shalman, with some 200 others from earlier waves of refugees.
About half of the 10,000 refugees in Shalman said during a January survey that they would rather return to Afghanistan than relocate to another camp inside Pakistan. Unlike the relocation to Kotkai, the refugees going home organise their own transport back to Afghanistan, using the financial assistance provided by UNHCR for returnees.
The first homebound refugees were registered and left on Sunday. UNHCR gave each of them a travel grant that varied from $3 to $30, depending on the distance to their homes, plus $8 instead of food and non-food items like buckets that were provided in previous years of the repatriation programme.
"UNHCR gave us the option to either repatriate or relocate," said Jan Mohammed. "I prefer to repatriate. If I am dead or alive, hungry or thirsty, I want to be in my country. I came here two-and-a-half years ago and I don't want to be a refugee any longer."
The camps that were set up in late 2001 when Pakistan lifted restrictions and allowed new refugees to enter were often in difficult locations, intended to be only temporary. Shalman was in one of the most hostile environments, forcing UNHCR to deliver several tanker trucks of water per day because the valley is completely dry. It will be abandoned after the last residents are moved around March 23.
UNHCR plans to continue the programme of camp consolidation during the next two years. Two camps in the Chaman area of Balochistan province are likely to be the closed next, starting as soon as there is agreement on the alternative refugee camp inside Pakistan that will be offered to residents not wishing to repatriate.
At the same time, UNHCR is assisting all Afghans in Pakistan who want to go home. More than 1.9 million Afghans have received return assistance in the past two years and UNHCR expects to help about 400,000 to go home this year. The voluntary repatriation programme runs until the end of 2005.