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Afghanistan/Pakistan: North Waziristan refugee camps close: 85 percent choose repatriation

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BANNU, Pakistan, July 1 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has completed registering Afghans who wish to repatriate because of the closure of refugee camps in troubled North Waziristan, with at least 85 percent of the camp population choosing to return to Afghanistan rather than relocate elsewhere in Pakistan.

A final 14 families were registered yesterday, the last scheduled day for assisting those who asked to repatriate under the UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme, bringing the total to 4,539 families or 27,537 individuals who obtained the voluntary repatriation forms needed to receive assistance on arrival in Afghanistan.

UNHCR said it would maintain staff at the repatriation centre this morning in case there were any stragglers. Today is also the deadline for the families to actually cross directly from North Waziristan into Afghanistan. Unlike normal repatriation procedures, returnees undergo an iris recognition test in the Afghan city of Khost - rather than in Pakistan - to ensure they have not previously received assistance.

UNHCR field staff said some 1,200 Afghan families who had earlier indicated that they wanted to be relocated to another existing camp, to be selected by the government, had now decided to repatriate.

They will be assisted at UNHCR's nearby Alizai repatriation centre, which has been helping returning Afghans since the start of this year's programme in March. Iris tests are carried out at Alizai before voluntary repatriation forms are issued.

"I preferred repatriation over relocation because someday I have to go back to Afghanistan - why not do it now?" said Mir Saeed Gul, who was registering his family at the UNHCR office set up in Bannu in the neighbouring North West Frontier Province, just for the closing of the camps in nearby North Waziristan. "I know finding work in Khost will be difficult, but I am hopeful."

When the government of Pakistan announced a month ago that the North Waziristan camps would be closed at the end of June, there were an estimated 32,000 Afghans living in a dozen camps in the unruly agency bordering Afghanistan, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Nearly 60,000 Afghans lived in North Waziristan, including outside the camps. Those who wish to repatriate can receive the UNHCR assistance that is available to all Afghans in Pakistan under the voluntary repatriation programme.

Returning Afghans can receive a travel grant ranging from $3 to $30 each, plus a $12 per capita grant to assist in reintegration in Afghanistan. The assistance is paid to holders of voluntary repatriation forms on arrival at UNHCR encashment centres in Afghanistan.

UNHCR supported the closing of the camps in North Waziristan because of security concerns - the area has been the scene of continuing clashes between the Pakistani army and rebel tribesmen linked to fighting in Afghanistan - that have made it impossible to properly assist the refugees.

It also reflects a programme of closures paralleling the fall in the Afghan population in Pakistan since the repatriation programme began in 2002. So far UNHCR has assisted more than 2.4 million Afghans to return home, including 178,000 Afghans who have gone this year from Pakistan.

Two camps in Balochistan province will also close this year - Jungle Pir Alizai at the end of July and Girdi Jungle at the end of August. The government has also announced it intends to close the remaining camps in FATA as of August 30.

By Jack Redden. UNHCR Pakistan