Afghanistan + 1 more

Pakistan: Afghan refugees concerned over imminent closure of two camps in Balochistan

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QUETTA, 6 May 2007 (IRIN) - Afghan refugees living in two camps slated for closure later this year in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province have expressed strong concern over their future plight, saying fear of violence was the main reason they did not want to return to their homeland.

"The majority of the refugees here come from the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand province where the Taliban are strongest," Shamsaddin Shams, a shopkeeper at the Jungle Pir Alizai refugee camp 62 km west of Quetta, Balochistan's provincial capital, told IRIN.

The camp is home to some 35,000 Afghan refugees.

"We don't know what to do," Shams said. "Everyone knows that these provinces are insecure and many of the people living there now are actually displaced from their own places of origin out of fear of further fighting and bombardment."

Akram, another refugee at the camp, agreed. Originally from the northern province of Mazar-i Sharif, he said his family's land had been seized by Uzbek militants working in the area, making the probability of their return all but impossible.

"As ethnic Pashtoons, we are the minority in the province. Our relatives are now displaced, living in the south of the country, and wouldn't dare return now."

Second Camp faces closure

A second Baloch camp facing closure is the Girdi Jungle camp, where another 40,000 Afghans live. It is 400 km from Quetta and close to the Iranian border. Residents there raised similar concerns.

"I am very sad. I will not go. It's better for the government to kill us," Agha Janan, a banana seller from Afghanistan's northern Kunduz province, said.

Abdul Ghafoor, a school teacher at the camp, had a question for Balochistan's government and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR): "How can you willingly ask us to return to places like Helmand and Kandahar knowing how bad the security is there?"

That is a question repeatedly being asked by the 2.15 million registered Afghans living in Pakistan today.

According to a recent report on the registration of Afghans living in the country, the majority of Afghans registered (82 percent) said they had no intention of returning to their homeland in the near future, with 41 percent citing insecurity as the primary impediment to their return.

However, the decision to proceed with the closure of the two camps in Balochistan, alongside the Katchagari and Jalozai refugee camps in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, home to another 150,000 Afghans, was already reaffirmed in February at the Tripartite Commission meeting between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UNHCR.

Majeed Khan Achakzi, a member of the Baloch provincial assembly, told IRIN that the camps had become a haven for terrorists working in the area, adding that Jungle Pir Alizai had become a base for drug traffickers, smugglers and thieves.

"We have hosted the refugees and tolerated risks for more than 20 years. Enough is enough," Achakzi said.

Dunya Khan, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Quetta, confirmed that the two camps in Balochistan would indeed close, with Jungle Pir Alizai likely to close by 15 June, and Girdi Jungle by 31 August, adding that residents would, however, have the option to either relocate to the Ghazgai Minara refugee camp in Loralai district, about 300km south of Quetta - and where they would continue to receive basic assistance in terms of primary education, health care and access to water and sanitation - or to repatriate to their homeland with UNHCR assistance.

Afghans registered in the country who choose the latter could receive an enhanced assistance, transport and reintegration package, including a grant of approximately US $100, Khan said, while those Afghans affected by camp closure who could not repatriate at the moment would receive transport to, and assistance in, the government-identified camps in Pakistan.

Since the launch of UNHCR's voluntary repatriation effort in March 2002, close to three million Afghans have returned to their homeland.

The refugee agency's planning figure for Afghan returns in 2007 is 250,000 from Pakistan and Iran, the primary host countries of the Afghan diaspora.

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