Hard decisions as Pakistan's largest refugee village faces closure
JALOZAI, Pakistan, February 28 (UNHCR) - The long-running saga of Jalozai, Pakistan's largest Afghan refugee village, could soon come to an end. Affected Afghans will have to make some hard decisions as the April 15 deadline for closure approaches.
The decision to close Jalozai - located in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) - was based on security concerns and endorsed by a tripartite commission comprising the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UN refugee agency in 2006 and 2007.
Jalozai used to host nearly 110,000 registered Afghans who had fled years of conflict in Afghanistan. As the authorities started to close the sprawling settlement last August, some 25,000 inhabitants repatriated to Afghanistan.
Fearing mass displacement and a humanitarian crisis on the eve of winter, UNHCR and the Afghan authorities requested a temporary suspension of the closure. As a result, Jalozai's Afghan elders signed an undertaking to vacate the refugee village between March 1 and April 15 this year. They were given two options: voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan or relocation to an existing refugee settlement in Pakistan.
"We are aware that the extended government deadline is looming above our heads and we are not going to challenge the government's decision," said Aziz Khan, a refugee elder originally from Paktya province in south-eastern Afghanistan. "However making a decision to go back may not be possible for me due to reasons including security, hardships in reintegrating and the differences we have with a few powerful people there."
Maulvi Sahib Toti, from Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan, agreed: "Afghanistan has still not fully recovered from decades of fighting. We are aware of everything that happens there. We know that there are economic hardships for people who returned before us. There is very little opportunity to earn a living where we come from and above that, there is a sense of insecurity."
Asked if he would move to another refugee village in Pakistan, he said, "Our problem is that we want to make a single decision that is long lasting for us. If we decide to relocate somewhere else in Pakistan, then after a year or two we may have to uproot ourselves again, when we want to return home to Afghanistan. All this just adds up to make the decision more difficult for us."
Recognizing the inevitability of Jalozai's closure and the difficult decisions facing its residents, UNHCR has been working closely with the Afghans and Pakistan authorities to ensure a smooth and peaceful end to the saga.
"For those who want to repatriate voluntarily, we have asked them to give us their names and details. We plan to schedule them to avoid a last-minute rush at the voluntary repatriation centre," said Mohammed Adar, head of UNHCR in Peshawar. "Where possible, we'll prioritize Afghans going to warmer areas in eastern Afghanistan. Those from colder provinces, such as the north, will be scheduled for April."
Afghans returning home with UNHCR help are entitled to an average cash grant of US$100 per person to cover their travel and initial reintegration expenses.
Jalozai residents who feel they cannot repatriate have been informed of their relocation options in Pakistan - to existing refugee villages in NWFP's Dir and Chitral districts. UNHCR has negotiated with the authorities to allow relocation to Kot Chandna refugee settlement in Punjab province.
Those who wish to relocate can use basic services like health, education, water and sanitation. UNHCR will also arrange transport for the relocating refugees. Go-and-see visits are being organized to give Jalozai representatives a clearer picture of the social services and livelihood opportunities available in these areas.
With just six weeks to vacate Jalozai, Sahib Toti from Kunar, is waiting for a miracle should the Pakistan government change its mind about closing Jalozai. That, according to government officials in Pakistan, will not come this time. "There will be no further extension," Dr. Imran Zeb, Pakistan's Commissioner for Afghan Refugees in Islamabad, told a national newspaper recently.
Some 80,000 registered Afghans remain in Jalozai today. A breakdown of this population shows that some 18 percent come from Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, 15 percent from Kabul, 12 percent each from Kunar and Paktya provinces and 8 percent from Jawzjan.
Currently there are some 2 million registered Afghans in Pakistan who are allowed to stay in the country till the end of 2009.
By Babar Baloch in Jalozai, Pakistan