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Afghanistan: UN human rights agency chief visits legal aid centre for refugees

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Feb 26 (UNHCR) - Afghan refugees should have a chance to exercise their right to return home, said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, as he visited a UNHCR-funded legal aid programme for refugees in Pakistan today.
During his tour of a Advice and Legal Aid Centre (ALAC) in Peshawar on Wednesday, Vieira de Mello said, "I will be visiting Afghanistan in future and increasing our collaboration with the Afghan transitional government and with the Afghan National Human Rights Commission to create the necessary conditions that will attract all the refugees back home, because that is where they should be."

He added, "Afghanistan needs them there, not here in Pakistan."

The legal aid centre Vieira de Mello visited is part of a network of such offices opened in Pakistan by the UN refugee agency last year following an increase in arrests, harassment, arbitrary detentions and deportations of refugees in the country. UNHCR is spending $700,000 this year to run and expand the programme in agreement with its non-governmental organisation (NGO) partners.

The ALACs aim to provide refugees with easy and direct access to free advice, legal aid and counselling, including legal representation. They will also assist refugees in submitting applications to administrative bodies, lodging complaints and petitions before the courts and, when applicable, provide free legal representation in court proceedings.

The ALAC network's success is evident in its efforts to reunite a separated Afghan family and save a woman from a life of destitution.

Staff from a legal aid centre in Peshawar, run by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), were visiting a Pakistani shelter for needy women when they heard of a woman whose husband had gone to Afghanistan in search of work and never returned. The shelter had a dubious reputation.

"That poor guy had been roaming in southern Afghanistan without a job," said Arshad Aziz, the project co-ordinator for the centres. "We sent a message to the United Nations in Kandahar to see if they had a record of him and it turned out he was now working as a driver with them."

"He said he had come back to Pakistan but his wife and two kids were not in the camp where they had lived. He had tried looking in different camps but couldn't find them," said Aziz. "When he received news of them, he came here within two days and took them back to Afghanistan."

NRC operates two ALACs in Peshawar. This year, it plans to open another five centres in Mansehra, Bajaur, Kohot, Kurram and a third centre in Peshawar. It is also opening legal aid centres in Afghanistan under an agreement with UNHCR offices there.

The Pakistani NGO, Society for Human Rights and Prisoners Aid (SHARP), runs ALACs in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Mianwali. The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) operates centres in Peshawar and Islamabad, focusing also on building up the NGO protection sector. This year, an ALAC opened by ICMC in Quetta with UNHCR funding will instead be supported by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO).

So far, the number of cases appears relatively small: the two NRC centres in Peshawar have handled a total of 777 requests for information and 372 legal cases since last summer. But each case, often the result of visits to refugee camps to explain the services on offer, can have an impact far beyond the individual beneficiaries.

"You can definitely multiply the number because the advice we give applies to the whole family and all the refugees," said Lisbeth Pilegaard, representative for NRC in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "It extends to the whole community."

In the NRC offices, questions about shelter - and the related subject of land on which to build - are the most frequent. The information staff also receive queries about job prospects inside Afghanistan, followed by questions on security after so many years of war, and the availability of education.

Above all, the legal staff are asked to help in money disputes, especially the recovery of deposits from Pakistani landlords. The amount, pooled by extended families, can be huge compared to the meagre wealth of refugees and they could not resume life in Afghanistan without it.

"A family of carpet weavers came and said they wanted to repatriate but first needed a refund of their 80,000 rupee ($1,400) advance. The rent had been perhaps 4,000 or 5,000 rupees a month," said Shah Faisal Khan, a legal counsellor at the NRC centre in an area populated by Hazaras, an Afghan minority group. "After we resolved his problem, they loaded their truck and came over here to the office. Then they all went back to Afghanistan."

The legal aid centres also spend much time helping Afghan refugees jailed by the authorities - sometimes on questionable grounds. Refugees, whose status is often unclear in Pakistan, can face arbitrary arrest as illegal immigrants. Afghan children are also jailed after being used as cheap couriers to carry drugs inside the country.

"If we think a person has been charged illegally, we get involved," said Khan, underlining the judgement required at the ALACs. "If it's a hardened criminal, we don't get involved."

The role of the legal aid centres is likely to increase as the Afghan refugee problem nears a resolution after nearly a quarter century - both for more information on repatriation and for protection if Pakistan applies pressure for refugees to leave.

Although a formal agreement has not yet been signed, UNHCR is working with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan under proposals that assisted repatriation will continue for three years and the residual population will then be screened to establish who still needs the protection of refugee status.

That has spurred refugee requests for assistance in obtaining land in Afghanistan from their government, said Aziz. Five hundred Afghan families in Pakistan have approached the legal aid centres for help in petitioning the government in Kabul for land, which may become easier once NRC opens its Afghan ALACs.

"They don't want assistance once they are back, just land. Then they will take care of themselves," he said. "They know there is a three-year strategy for them to leave, so they would like to go back. They see that the crackdown will start one day."

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