Pakistan: Clearing makeshift refugee encampment
UNHCR expects to start clearing a controversial, makeshift refugee encampment just inside the Pakistan border on Monday, moving more than 500 Afghans back to Afghanistan in the first stage of a plan that will relocate all 19,605 residents over the next weeks.
The governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the UN refugee agency agreed a month ago to close the "Waiting Area," a zone where Afghans fleeing the war against the Taliban were stranded when Pakistan banned the entry of additional refugees in February 2002.
Following the decision to close the area, which was considered insecure and was not a recognised refugee camp where UNHCR could provide full assistance, nearly all of the residents have signed up for the upcoming relocation convoys. The Afghans had a choice of returning to their homes in Afghanistan, transferring to the existing refugee camp of Mohammad Kheil inside Pakistan or moving to a new settlement for internally displaced Afghans at Zhare Dasht, near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. With less than 300 families still waiting to register, more than 59 percent of the residents in the Waiting Area site have asked to move to Zhare Dasht, which was opened last year. Another 40 percent chose Mohammad Kheil, a camp now holding 37,000 refugees that was opened for those fleeing the 2001 war in Afghanistan. Only about 20 families asked for UNHCR assistance to return to their home communities.
UNHCR, in co - ordination with the governments, set a 15 July deadline for closing the camp, although assistance for those registered to leave will continue until the relocation is complete. Initially, there will be movements to Zhare Dasht and Mohammad Kheil on alternate days in trucks hired by UNHCR. About 200 families will relocate to Mohammad Kheil on Tuesday.
The Waiting Area had always been considered unsuitable for a refugee camp. Located right on the border, it was on a smuggling route and the lack of security was underlined in the past month when the bodies of 22 fighters killed in a nearby battle with Afghan government troops were dumped in the centre of the refugee settlement, frightening the camp's residents. The decision to close the area was taken at the first meeting of the Tripartite Commission, a body set up under an agreement by Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNHCR which is to set policy on the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees until 2005.