Census of Afghans in Pakistan to begin on February 23
ISLAMABAD, Feb 9 (UNHCR) - Teams from the government of Pakistan will spread out across the country for 10 days starting on February 23 in a census financed by the UN refugee agency that will provide the most detailed information ever gathered on Afghans living in Pakistan.
Plans for a census were first announced during a visit to Pakistan by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers last month, but the exact dates were released at a joint news conference in Islamabad on Tuesday by the government of Pakistan and UNHCR.
"Some 2,000 government employees will start going house to house on February 23 to record all Afghans who have arrived in Pakistan over the past quarter century," said Guenet Guebre-Christos, Representative of UNHCR in Pakistan.
"This exercise is mainly to help us understand the Afghan population in Pakistan," she said. "This exercise is extremely important to know how many Afghans there are in this country, who are they, where are they living, what are their intentions."
She said the census was not linked directly with repatriation of Afghans, which is governed by a separate agreement providing for voluntary returns, but it could provide information on problems preventing Afghans from going home.
"So the objective is not to push the Afghans out," she said. "The objective is to know who and where they are, and how they can be managed."
The news conference was attended by Sajid Hussain Chattha, Secretary of the Ministry for States and Frontier Regions, which deals with Afghan refugees; Najam Hasan, Pakistan's Chief Census Commissioner; and Jahangir Khan, Chief Commissioner of Afghan Refugees.
"The census will provide the first firm figures on the number of Afghans in Pakistan as well as details on when they arrived, their place of origin, where they are now living, their current livelihoods and their intention to repatriate," said Chattha.
Participation is mandatory for all Afghans who arrived in Pakistan since December 1, 1979 - the month of the Soviet invasion that sent Afghanistan into a downward spiral of violence. Those who do not will be excluded from a proposed subsequent registration designed to provide some sort of individual document. A major information campaign, using radio, television and print, is underway to ensure Afghans know of the census.
At present the government estimates that 3 million Afghans live in all parts of Pakistan, while UNHCR estimates that about a million live just in refugee camps. The $750,000 census, which is being financed by UNHCR, will help provide a profile of the Afghans in Pakistan.
The teams of enumerators will be visiting areas that have already been surveyed over the past two months in a "mapping exercise" that identified the residences of Afghans in all four provinces. A major test of those procedures will be conducted next Monday, February 14, in selected areas around the country in case any last-minute alterations to the methods are needed.
UNHCR teams have been monitoring all stages of the process so far and will be in the field continually during the actual census-taking to ensure the agreed procedures are followed. The census will be conducted by the government's Population Census Organisation (PCO).
The data collected by the two-person census teams - one man and one woman in each - will be entered into a database and the first results should be available for detailed analysis during the second half of March.
The information is essential for the development of policies for those Afghans who will remain in Pakistan after the current tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan expires in March 2006. Under that agreement, UNHCR has assisted nearly 2.3 million Afghans to repatriate from Pakistan since 2002.
Although UNHCR has been assisting Afghan refugees in Pakistan for a quarter century, there has never been a formal census or registration of all those who fled during the years of fighting in their homeland.
The census will ask Afghans if they intend to return to Afghanistan by the end of the UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme. UNHCR and the government of Pakistan agree that voluntary repatriation of Afghans is the preferred goal, but believe a substantial number will still be in Pakistan at the end of the tripartite agreement.
By Jack Redden