Pakistan's border camps to close by September
ISLAMABAD, April 20 (UNHCR) - UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers has ended his mission to the Afghanistan region by announcing the closure of all "new" camps near the Afghan-Pakistani border by September this year.
"We have to be more assertive, more clear on the need to end, close down certain camps," said Lubbers at a news conference in Islamabad on Monday. "I am particularly thinking of the Chaman border camps [in Balochistan province], but also other so-called 'new' camps all the way to the North West Frontier province."
The "new" camps were set up near the border inside Pakistan to receive people fleeing the war in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Many of them have returned home since, leaving some 200,000 Afghans in 13 such camps.
The High Commissioner's announcement will speed up an ongoing operation to close and consolidate these camps, the latest being Shalman camp near Pakistan's Khyber Pass.
Explaining his decision to remove the camps by September, Lubbers said there was a danger that forces opposed to the current government in Afghanistan, both Taliban and al Qaida, could find sanctuary and recruit people from the border camps.
"We think it's really not good to continue the situation there, it's not good for the people who are living there, it's not good for Pakistan, it's not good for Afghanistan," he said.
The remaining 200,000 refugees will be offered assistance to return to Afghanistan, where according to Lubbers, economic opportunities had increased since his last visit a year ago.
There are another up to 1 million Afghan refugees living in some 200 "old" camps in Pakistan, people who had fled Afghanistan during 25 years of civil conflict. Unknown numbers are living elsewhere in Pakistan, for example in urban areas.
Nearly 2 million Afghan refugees have returned from Pakistan since UNHCR started its voluntary repatriation programme in March 2002. This includes some 60,000 who have gone back to Afghanistan in the last seven weeks. Returnees receive a travel grant ranging from $3 to $30 depending on their final destination, and an extra $8 instead of food and other assistance provided in previous years.
The High Commissioner expressed hope that when the tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan expires in March 2006, Afghans remaining in Pakistan may be accommodated under other arrangements like work permits, an economic arrangement that could benefit both countries.
Lubbers left Pakistan for Geneva on Tuesday, ending an eight-day trip to review the Afghan refugee situation in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.