ISLAMABAD, 15 June (IRIN) - The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has announced it would start issuing voluntary repatriation documents to Afghans living in refugee camps in the North Waziristan agency of Pakistan's western tribal belt, on Wednesday. Islamabad recently announced it intended to close all the camps in that area by the end of June.
"Some 83 percent camp of residents [Afghan refugees] in North Waziristan out of a total of over 38,000 opted to repatriate, availing [themselves of] UNHCR assistance and got themselves registered with the agency last week," Jack Redden, UNHCR spokesman in Islamabad, said.
Over 5,300 Afghan families out of a total of 6,471 living in North Waziristan refugee camps turned up last week when the UN refugee agency launched a four-day drive to register Afghans wishing to avail themselves of the UNHCR's offer of assistance to return home.
The heads of household had to travel to the Bannu district of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), some 40 km away, to collect the Voluntary Repatriation Forms (VRFs), required to secure the UNHCR voluntary repatriation assistance package to return to Afghanistan, the UNHCR spokesman said. The UN refugee agency will continue issuing VRFs until 29 June.
"The heads [of household] must bring a picture showing all the members of the family who are repatriating. Moreover, the UNHCR teams will process only the cases of those Afghans that were registered last week," Redden added. After receiving VRFs the heads would return to North Waziristan and proceed with their families to the Afghan city of Khost through the border crossing point of Ghulam Khan into Afghanistan.
"All the family members over the age of six would have to undergo an iris scanning test at the UNHCR encashment centre to ensure they have not previously received repatriation assistance," the UNHCR official explained.
The Pakistani authorities cited security concerns when it announced in May that it would close more than a dozen camps housing over 38,000 Afghans in the tribal North Waziristan agency. Islamabad intends to close down gradually all the refugee camps inside the western tribal belt, an area composed of seven agencies bordering Afghanistan. The camps were established more than two decades ago to house Afghans fleeing unrest in their homeland following the Soviet invasion.
In a similar move last year, Afghan refugee camps in South Waziristan agency were closed in June 2004 as the Pakistani security forces conducted operations against alleged Islamic militants in the area.
"Last year, the Afghans were the most who suffered from the security forces' operation in South Waziristan agency. The decision to close all the refugee camps in North Waziristan has been taken in the best interest of Afghans, keeping in view the previous situation," Dr Imran Zeb, director at the office of the Chief Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CCAR), explained.
CCAR is the Pakistani state body dealing with Afghan refugee issues. The UN refugee agency has not opposed the closure of the camps.
"The unrest due to ongoing security problems in the area bordering Afghanistan has made it very difficult to provide services in those camps," the UNHCR spokesman noted. In addition, for those who do not wish to repatriate, the option of relocation to any other area still remains, Redden said.
According to a census conducted over February and March this year, some 58,000 Afghans are living in North Waziristan, including over 38,000 living in UNHCR-administered camps.
"All the Afghans would have to move out of North Waziristan in due course of time. After the camp residents, others living in urban and rural settlements would also have to leave," the head of political administration in North Waziristan, Tariq Hayat told IRIN from Miranshah, capital of the tribal agency.
"That's a policy decision. However, no date has been decided to this as yet," said Hayat while declining to comment on any specific security concern.
The UN refugee agency has assisted some 2.4 million refugees to return from Pakistan to Afghanistan. So far this year, more than 122,000 Afghans have gone home with assistance from the UN refugee agency's assistance package. The assistance provides a travel grant ranging from $3 to $30 depending on the distance to destination with another $12 per person to help them re-establish themselves and resettle.
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