Afghan, Pakistani governments agree to gradually close border camps
KABUL, August 28 (UNHCR) - The governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan have agreed to the gradual consolidation and closure of Afghan refugee camps near Pakistan's border, and to help sustain returns by focusing aid in the refugees' communities back in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, representatives of the two governments and the UN refugee agency held a Tripartite Commission meeting in Kabul. It was chaired by the Afghan Deputy Minister of Refugees and Repatriation, Mohammad Naeem Ghiacy; the Pakistani Secretary of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, Northern Areas and States and Frontier Regions, Pervaiz Saleem; and UNHCR's heads of operations in the two countries.
"We agreed to consolidate a number of camps, especially those near the border area where it lacks facilities to assist the refugees," said Afghan Deputy Minister Ghiacy.
The camps in question include Shalman camps near the Khyber Pass in north-western Pakistan and camps around Chaman in Balochistan province, established during the height of the Afghan exodus in late 2001.
Starting next year, up to 50,000 Afghan refugees living in these camps will be asked to choose between returning to Afghanistan and relocating within Pakistan. An earlier Tripartite Commission meeting in May had already led to the return and relocation of some 19,000 Afghans stuck at the Chaman "waiting area" at the border.
"These camps are close to the border and are not acceptable either for assistance or from the security point of view," explained UNHCR's Representative in Pakistan, Hasim Utkan.
"Of course it is difficult for those people who have been assisted in camps to decide on their return," said Filippo Grandi, UNHCR's chief in Afghanistan.
Afghan Deputy Minister Ghiacy added, "For those wishing to return, Pakistani government and UNHCR have agreed to focus aid to their areas of origin," especially in rural areas. Those who do not wish to repatriate will be relocated to other camps in Pakistan.
Returnees have an important role to play in next year's elections in Afghanistan, said the meeting's participants. As such, the Tripartite Commission has agreed to co-operate with the electoral committees in the registration process, details of which will be established shortly by a presidential decree on voters' registration.
Other points discussed on Wednesday included the establishment of Disputes Resolution Committees to help Afghan refugees solve legal problems, as well as the issue of Afghan prisoners in Pakistan.
More than 300 Afghans are currently detained in Pakistan, based on the Foreigners Act that governs foreigners without documentation. Some of those arrested are Afghan refugees who have been living in Pakistan for decades, but they may still be subject to deportation under this law.
The Tripartite Commission agreed to co-operate in helping both governments accelerate the release of the Afghan prisoners within the context of the voluntary repatriation agreement.
"Both governments are serious about resolving the issue and the individual cases are being scrutinised," said the Pakistani Minister, Saleem. "I am confident that many of the detainees will soon be back with their families."
Concluding the meeting, the three parties reaffirmed their commitment to assist the voluntary and gradual return of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
"We don't want to add to the difficulties inside Afghanistan," Saleem said to reporters in Kabul. "If Pakistan has the resources to help Afghan refugees return in safety and dignity, we will be more than happy to assist them."
More than 1.5 million Afghan refugees returned from Pakistan last year. So far this year, another 262,000 have repatriated to Afghanistan from Pakistan.
On Thursday, the UN refugee agency closed its iris-verification centre in Chaman due to the seasonal decline of returnees from Pakistan's Balochistan province with the coming winter. Afghan refugees returning this way will either have their iris tests at Baleli iris-verification centre in Quetta, or by mobile units in the border area. UNHCR has another two iris-verification centres in Pakistan's North West Frontier province.