Top UNHCR official outlines options for camp closure in Pakistan
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, February 21 (UNHCR) - Voluntary repatriation and camp closure in Pakistan were at the top of the agenda as Janet Lim, director of the Asia-Pacific Bureau at the UN refugee agency in Geneva, consulted government officials and Afghans on her first visit to the region this week.
On Wednesday, Lim travelled to Peshawar in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province to review the structure for voluntary repatriation, which is scheduled to resume on March 1 after the winter break. She also met with officials from the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CAR) as well as Afghans in Katchagari, one of four camps slated for closure this year as agreed by the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"I know this is a difficult time, but you have to accept that the camp is closing. You'll have to make some difficult decisions, and we'll try to make the process as smooth as possible," Lim told Afghan elders at Katchagari, which is set to be closed by June 15.
"UNHCR has always insisted that any returns must be voluntary and that relocation to existing pre-identified camps for those not repatriating remain as an option. I urge you to make your informed decision," she added.
One elder replied, "We are grateful to the government of Pakistan for all they have given us. And we are very aware that the camp was supposed to have closed in 2002. But no one ever asked us why we can't leave.
"The main reason is that there is no peace in Afghanistan. Unless and until there is peace, no health or water services can be restored. Even if we go back, we don't know where to settle. We need rehabilitation inside Afghanistan," he said.
According to CAR, the government has identified existing camps in Dir and Chitral in the northern part of the province as relocation sites for Afghans who cannot return for the moment. Some Afghans have complained that the sites in Chitral are inaccessible during winter due to heavy snow.
"If we go to relocation camps, it will be difficult and expensive for us to build our houses again," noted one elder. "We would rather go back to Afghanistan if there is peace and services."
Another elder said, "For us, going to Chitral and Afghanistan are the same thing. We just ask that UNHCR provides assistance and services. In Afghanistan, there is a lot of desert. If you provide land and water, we will definitely go back and settle down there."
The decision to close Katchagari, Jalozai, Jungle Pir Alizai and Girdi Jungle camps - as part of camp closure and consolidation plans this year - was reaffirmed earlier this month at the Tripartite Commission meeting between Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNHCR.
At the same meeting, Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation Ustad Mohammad Akbar Akbar noted that, as part of reintegration efforts, his government was developing 50 townships for returnees and hoped to double the number within three years.
The UN refugee agency is standing by to facilitate camp closure by providing options - first, through assisted voluntary return to Afghanistan with a two-phased approach. From March 1 to April 15, Afghans who did not register in the just-concluded government registration exercise will be able to benefit from UNHCR-assisted repatriation. From April 16 to November 15, those with Proof of Registration cards can repatriate under new modalities and an enhanced assistance package.
Afghans affected by camp closure who cannot repatriate at the moment will receive transport to, and assistance in, the government-identified relocation camps in Pakistan.
During her four-day visit to Pakistan, Lim also met with senior government officials as well as key donors and partners. While this is her first visit in her present capacity - Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia were recently absorbed into UNHCR's Asia-Pacific Bureau in an internal restructuring move - Lim is no stranger to the region.
She served as director of technical advisory section, relief, recovery and reconstruction for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) from 2003-2004. She is scheduled to continue her journey to Afghanistan and Iran till the end of the month.
By Vivian Tan in Peshawar, Pakistan