Afghan delegation tours Pakistan to promote repatriation
ISLAMABAD, April 15 (UNHCR) - A delegation from northern Afghanistan has begun a UNHCR-sponsored tour of all provinces of Pakistan to tell refugees about improving conditions in the areas they fled up to 25 years ago and to hear their continuing concerns about returning.
"The benefit will be that the refugees living here in Pakistan will learn what recent developments have taken place in Afghanistan," said Samiullah Wardak of the Afghan government's Ministry of Rural Development. "On the other hand, our concerned authorities will also get informed about what problems and hardships Afghan refugees go through in Pakistan."
The nine members - including two people from the United Nations in Afghanistan - started their mission in Islamabad on Thursday and will visit areas throughout the country by the time they board a return flight to Kabul on April 28.
The team, the Returns Commission Working Group, was formed nearly three years ago to help remove obstacles in five provinces of Afghanistan where factional rivalries were hindering repatriation.
Since then, they have been trying to resolve problems in the provinces - Balkh, Sar-i-Pul, Jawzjan, Samangan and Faryab - and conveying the results to former residents living in camps for internally displaced people inside Afghanistan or refugees in Iran and Pakistan.
Although some 2.3 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan since 2002 and another 400,000 are forecast to repatriate this year, millions of Afghans remain in exile despite the end of the open warfare that raged in their homeland for more than two decades.
Many of them have established new lives in Pakistan and are reluctant to start over back in Afghanistan. Others, such as the thousands of residents of the slum area on the edge of Islamabad where the delegation went on Thursday, are poor Afghans who want promises of land or shelter before returning.
"If we are assured by the government that there will be land and other shelter facilities available to us once we go back, we are ready to leave even tomorrow," said Mohammad Zalmey, who was attending the session in an open-air mosque beside the mud-track that is the main road.
But the delegation is carrying a firm message: it is time for most Afghans to come back and join in the reconstruction; they will have problems but conditions in the country have improved markedly since the civil war ended with the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001.
"Whenever you return, your problems may increase manifold - all of those who have returned in the last three years had problems. But they had to start somewhere," said Shujauddin, a representative of the Afghan Department of Refugees and Repatriation.
"Today the international community and other donor agencies are ready to help the Afghan people. This opportunity may not be there forever," he told Afghan men who jammed around the mosque. "You have to make your own decision."
This repatriation season will be the last full year of the current Tripartite Agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which governs the UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme that assists Afghans wishing to return from Pakistan. It expires next March, but repatriation is mainly during the current April-October period of warm weather in Afghanistan.
The Afghan delegation is pointing that out in an intensive tour that is taking them through the Punjab capital of Lahore, the refugee camp of Mianwalli, the Punjab city of Attock, the North-West Frontier Province of Peshawar, the Sindh capital of Karachi and the Balochistan capital of Quetta.
While any Afghan's decision to return to Afghanistan is voluntary and UNHCR is discussing with the government how to manage those Afghans who remain after the Tripartite Agreement expires, the UN refugee agency and the Pakistani government still believe repatriation is the best option for most people.
That is especially true for the Afghans who have been living for about two decades in the Katcha Abadi slum area of Islamabad, where the delegation started its work. The government wants to reclaim the land for development and its extended deadline for the residents to leave runs out this year.
The residents have the choice of repatriating to Afghanistan or moving elsewhere in Pakistan, but the team from northern Afghanistan was clear in the belief that they would be better off leaving Islamabad, where they specialize in rubbish collection, and return to their homeland.
"If they do not themselves return and build their homes and cultivate the land, it will remain in ruins forever," said Shujauddin. "Our request is that Afghans in Pakistan should come back now, as the United Nations is assisting them to voluntarily repatriate as well as helping them with their initial needs back in Afghanistan. It is a golden chance they should take advantage of."
By Jack Redden