UNHCR expands Afghan return programme in Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 16 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has expanded its Afghan voluntary repatriation operation, enabling Afghan refugees in southern Pakistan to join some 7,000 of their countrymen who have already crossed back in the north in the first weeks of assisted repatriation this year.
UNHCR resumed its operations in Quetta, south-western Pakistan, on Monday, after a two-week delay due to a bloody sectarian attack and the subsequent enforcement of curfews this month.
On Tuesday, 174 Afghan refugees in Balochistan province were processed at the iris verification centre in Quetta, where everyone above the age of six had to undergo a computerised iris test to determine if they had previously been checked and received the repatriation package. They then crossed back into southern Afghanistan through the Chaman border.
More than 500 refugees have registered to return through the southern route on Wednesday. They will join some 7,000 Afghans who have already crossed back into Afghanistan through the northern route since the March 2 start of assisted returns from Pakistan this year. These returnees had come from the Islamabad area and passed through the iris verification centre in Peshawar before crossing the Torkham border into northern Afghanistan.
This week's resumption of the southern route means that UNHCR's voluntary repatriation operation from Pakistan is now fully operational. It was suspended last November following the murder of a UNHCR worker in eastern Afghanistan. With security measures in place, the refugee agency expects to help some 400,000 Afghans home from Pakistan this year.
Among the returnees so far was one of UNHCR's own staff members, a translator named Mohammad Musa Shalizi. He and his family had fled to Pakistan in 1982 after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Mohammad was only five years old then.
"We were in danger at that time," he recalled. "In order to save our lives, we preferred to move to Pakistan."
The family stayed for four years in Haripur and a year in Mansehra, cities in Pakistan's North Western Frontier Province, before moving to Islamabad, where Mohammad worked for the UN Drug Control Programme and later UNHCR. He recently lost his job with the refugee agency due to a funding shortage.
"There is no income in Islamabad and it is very difficult to get a job nowadays. Moreover I cannot afford the 9,000 rupee ($163) rent of my home and other utilities. I am supporting three families - mine, my mother's and my sister's. It is very hard to arrange everything for them without a job," said Mohammad, who has a nine-month-old son.
However, he was hopeful of finding a job in Afghanistan: "I am positive and believe in Almighty Allah that I will find a good job in my country. I have a good education and experience, which I gained working for UN agencies. Besides, it is my country; at least I will not have to pay a big amount of money for the rent, for my passport and other documents which I used to pay in Pakistan."
Financial difficulties aside, Mohammad said he was grateful for Pakistan's hospitality to his family over the last 22 years. "We got a lot of support and love from the people of Pakistan. I felt that I was in my own country. They made me feel comfortable. We really appreciate their hospitality and friendship."
To help returnees like Mohammad settle back in Afghanistan after years in exile, UNHCR provides a travel grant, which varies from $3 to $30 depending on the distance, and $8 per person instead of the repatriation package of food and relief items that was distributed in previous years.
In all, 1.9 million Afghan refugees have gone home from Pakistan with UNHCR assistance since the voluntary repatriation operation started in 2002. The programme is carried out under a tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan that runs through 2005. The status of Afghans who remain in Pakistan after that date will be decided later. There are an estimated 1.1 million Afghans in refugee camps in Pakistan and an unknown, but substantial number, in other parts of the country.