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First Afghan families leave Pakistan as repatriation season resumes

First Afghan families leave Pakistan as repatriation season resumes

The UN refugee agency's fifth season of assisted returns to Afghanistan from Pakistan started this week after the winter break. Some 400,000 Afghans are expected to repatriate to Afghanistan this year, the last year of UNHCR-assisted returns under the current tripartite agreement with the two governments.
3 March 2006
After finalising arrangements for their return, a family walks to the truck that will take them back to Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

HAYATABAD, Pakistan, March 3 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency's fifth season of assisted returns to Afghanistan from Pakistan started this week amid some uncertainty and indecision among refugees.

A total of 77 Afghans have repatriated since Wednesday, when UNHCR started the final year of voluntary repatriation under the current tripartite agreement with the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The operation had been suspended over winter, when the number of people returning to wintry Afghanistan typically dwindles.

"As in previous years, repatriation starts slowly in March. Parts of Afghanistan are still too cold to return to at this time of the year. The pace peaks in May, June and July," said UNHCR repatriation officer Robert Friedman.

But 80-year-old Ambar Gul could not wait. "I'm returning now because of the tensions in Hangu," he said, referring to the recent spate of sectarian violence in the North-West Frontier Province town that started during the Ashura festival in February.

Ambar and his family of seven travelled two hours from Hangu to reach the Hayatabad iris-validation centre in Peshawar, where they were registered and guided through the iris-recognition machine to ensure they had not received UNHCR return assistance before. Each returnee receives a travel grant of US$4-37 depending on the final destination, and US$12 to ease reintegration back home.

Asked what he plans to do back in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, Ambar said, "I used to sell beans in the Hangu bazaar and my son was a loader. We'll go back and start a small business selling food in the market. I don't have a house there but my friend said we can stay with him."

After helping the burkha-clad women onto the back of the truck piled with furniture, wooden beams for reconstruction, domestic items and a live chicken, the father and son climbed into the front seat and drove off in a swirl of dust.

Fellow Afghan Safaraz Khan plans to travel lighter. "I'll just pack one bag and go, like a normal journey," said the 25-year-old in Jalozai camp in NWFP's Nowshera district. Armed with a Masters of Business Administration degree from a prestigious Peshawar university, he recently completed a contract with the International Committee of the Red Cross in the quake zone and wants to return to Afghanistan in 10 to 15 days time.

"I hope to find a job with the UN or an NGO in Kabul," he said. "Once I settle down, I'll bring my family from Jalozai camp."

Barely one year old when his family arrived in Pakistan, Safaraz has seen his family expand from six to 26 people. "Of course I'll miss it here, we share the same language and culture as the people of Nowshera," he said of his upcoming departure. "But at least I have a cousin working for the government in Afghanistan and hopefully my family will be able to join us soon."

Voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan is governed by the Tripartite Agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR that was set to expire in March but was extended till December this year. The refugee agency is in negotiations with the two governments on new return arrangements beyond 2006, possibly shifting from individual travel assistance to area-based reintegration assistance.

Ambar Gul's family takes turns at the iris-recognition machine to check that they have not received UNHCR repatriation assistance before.

The result of negotiations will have a direct impact on undecided Afghans like Anara, who has lived in Peshawar's Kababian camp for more than 20 years. "Yes, I'd like to go back but we don't have any land in Afghanistan. If I had land to live on, I would have left long ago," she said, wringing her henna-red hands. "My sons are daily wage workers and they earn so little money, we can't even support ourselves here. How can we return? But if the Pakistan government announces everyone has to go, we will go back."

More than 2.7 million Afghans have returned home from Pakistan under UNHCR's assisted repatriation operation since 2002. A government census conducted early last year counted 3.04 million Afghans living in Pakistan. With some 450,000 returning with UNHCR assistance last year, 2.6 million are believed to remain in the country. The refugee agency expects 400,000 Afghans to go home from Pakistan this year. To help with the reintegration process, UNHCR has just received a timely and welcome donation of 4.2 million euros from the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid office, ECHO, to assist returnees, internally displaced people and women at risk in Afghanistan.

By Vivian Tan in Peshawar, Pakistan