Afghans leaving Jalozai as deadline nears
JALOZAI, Pakistan, April 14 (UNHCR) - Afghans in Jalozai, Pakistan's largest refugee village, are gradually moving out as it becomes clear that the Tuesday deadline for closure will not change.
Many of the more than 70,000 Afghans in Jalozai, located in Nowshera district of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, had been waiting to see if the closure-based on security concerns raised by the Pakistani government - would be delayed beyond the April 15 deadline. However, that hope has been dashed by repeated reminders by the authorities to vacate Jalozai.
The message is sinking in. "We would have liked to get another extension in our stay in the refugee village. But, as apparent today, the government wants us to move, so now we are ready for it," said Haji Zulfiqar, a refugee in Jalozai. "However it may not be possible for all Afghans to vacate the refugee village in two or three days. It would be a gradual process and we will require an understanding from the authorities and UNHCR."
Abdul Rauf Khan, Pakistan's Chief Commissioner for Afghan Refugees, has assured UNHCR that Jalozai will be closed in an orderly and peaceful way, and that life-sustaining services such as food, water and electricity will not be stopped until the last Afghan leaves Jalozai. In return, he has asked that the refugees honour their commitment to vacate Jalozai this spring.
Jalozai's Afghans have two options when they leave: To voluntarily repatriate to Afghanistan with UNHCR assistance averaging US$100 per person, or to relocate to an existing refugee village in Pakistan.
More than 3,300 Afghans have left Jalozai for Afghanistan since the resumption of repatriation in March this year. The pace of return has increased in the last few days, but the return movement was temporarily suspended on Monday due to a road blockage in Pakistan en route to Afghanistan.
After a recent go-and-see visit to Kot Chandna refugee village in Punjab province, 36 Jalozai families have opted to relocate there. Thousands more have yet to decide where they will go after Jalozai.
"We will continue to work with the government to ensure that the closure process is conducted in safety and dignity," said Guenet Guebre-Christos, UNHCR's representative in Pakistan.
On Monday, the main bazaar in Jalozai was still thriving with business, catering to the needs of refugees and Pakistanis in the surrounding areas.
"These shops that you are seeing here may not be there in a few weeks or days as people will leave and the government will demolish the vacant houses and shops," said Haji Baaz Muhammad, an Afghan elder who recently visited Kabul to make arrangements for his family to return. "We hope our last few days in Pakistan will be spent in a respectful manner so that we don't leave with a bad taste despite Pakistan's hospitality over the last 30 years."
In Jalozai, a historical chapter for Afghan refugees is about to reach an end. The busy bazaar, the mud houses and dusty alleys will soon be saying farewell to its residents, converting the site into a silent levelled ground.
"Remember we are refugees, not permanent residents. This has to end one day. Wish us luck so Afghanistan is peaceful and prosperous for all returning Afghans," said Jalozai resident Abdul Rehman at the UNHCR's Hayatabad Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Peshawar last week.
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.
By Babar Baloch in Jalozai, Pakistan