Roadblock holds up Afghan returns in tribal area of north-west Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 15 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Tuesday temporarily suspended its Afghan voluntary return operation via Peshawar in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) due to a roadblock in the tribal areas leading to Afghanistan.
Fuelled by a dispute between local tribes, the blockage along the Peshawar-Torkham highway has left hundreds of home-bound Afghans stranded. More than 360 families had been processed for repatriation from Peshawar on Monday but were unable to leave due to the roadblock. UNHCR provided 45 needy families with food, plastic sheets and blankets to help them through the night.
To prevent more families from being stranded, the refugee agency suspended repatriation through Peshawar. "Repatriation will resume once the road is unblocked," said Kilian Kleinschmidt, UNHCR's assistant representative in Pakistan.
Today is also the deadline for the closure of Jalozai refugee village in NWFP. More than 70,000 Afghans living there have been given the options of voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan or relocation to an existing refugee village in Pakistan.
Over 3,000 have repatriated in recent weeks. More than 30 families have asked to be relocated to Kot Chandna refugee village in Punjab province. UNHCR acknowledges that Jalozai must be closed as previously agreed and that its residents must cooperate by leaving on time. Nonetheless, the agency hopes the Pakistani government can give them a little more time in view of the impasse on the Peshawar-Torkham road.
"We have an understanding with the government that 70,000 Afghans cannot possibly move out of Jalozai within a day. We have requested the authorities to temporarily suspend the closure of Jalozai until the road is open again," said Kleinschmidt.
"We were almost ready to go until the news [of suspended returns] came. We are now waiting for further news," said an Afghan elder at Jalozai refugee village on Tuesday. However, he noted, "Most of the shops in Jalozai are closed now, it may be hard for us to get food."
The Pakistani authorities have assured UNHCR that houses that are still occupied in Jalozai will not be demolished, and that basic services such as food, water and electricity will keep running until the last inhabitant leaves. The refugee agency has also urged the authorities to be more proactive on relocating Afghans who cannot return to Afghanistan.
UNHCR will continue to work with the authorities to ensure that Jalozai's closure takes place in a peaceful and orderly way, and that the safety and dignity of its Afghan residents are respected.
In south-western Pakistan, assisted returns are unaffected and continue through UNHCR's Baleli Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Balochistan.
Since UNHCR started assisting returns to Afghanistan in 2002, more than 3.2 million Afghans have returned home, including over 24,000 so far this year. Currently, Pakistan hosts more than 2 million registered Afghans.