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Pakistan, Afghanistan, UNHCR ink historic agreement on refugees

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ISLAMABAD, Mar 18 (APP): Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a UN-sponsored tripartite agreement for the voluntary repatriation of some 600,000 Afghan refugees to their homeland, UN officials said here on Tuesday. The agreement was signed in Brussels on March 17 and set up a formal process for resolving the 23-year-old problem of Afghan Refugees in Pakistan - one of the world's long-running humanitarian concerns. The tripartite accord was signed on the sidelines of the Afghan High-Level Strategic Forum.
UNHCR Commissioners Ruud Lubbers, Afghanistan's Minister of Refugees and Repatriation Enayatullah Nazari and Minister for Water and Power and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao signed the agreement. Pakistan-Afghanistan-UNHCR agreement was signed after nearly a year of negotiations held in Kabul and Islamabad. Under the accord, UNHCR will continue to assist the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan for three more years starting with 2003. "After three years, screening of the remaining Afghan refugees will be carried out to determine who still needs the protection of refugee status," the Officials said in a statement here. A six-member Tripartite Commission, having representation from Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR would be constituted to oversee the repatriation process. The Commission, which will review the repatriation programme annually, will meet alternately in the two countries every three months. The programme is aimed at smoothing both repatriation of the refugees to Afghanistan and their reintegration into their homeland. UNHCR Commissioner Mr. Lubbers praised Government of Pakistan and the Transitional Government of Afghanistan for their patience and creativity in achieving the agreement. "It shows the shared commitment to work for a sustainable return of the Afghan refugees," he added.

Minister Nazari thanked Pakistan and UNHCR for helping the refugees during their long stay outside of Afghanistan and now in assisting their return. SAFRON Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao also thanked UNHCR for its assistance to the refugees during their long stay in Pakistan. Despite the absence of a formal agreement, UNHCR last year operated a repatriation programme that returned nearly 1.6 million Afghans to their homeland from Pakistan. However, Pakistan says, a large number of those who had gone to their homeland have returned owning to difficult economic conditions there. The new Tripartite Agreement provides a formal mechanism for continuing the process and resolving any difficulties. The first phase of Three-year UNHCR programme is focused on the refugee camps where an estimated 1.5 million refugees live. At least another half million Afghans are believed to live in Pakistani cities. Under the Tripartite Agreement, the three parties affirmed that the "repatriation will only take place at their freely expressed wish based on their knowledge of the conditions relating to voluntary repatriation". On the completion of the repatriation programme, UNHCR will carry out screening "for the residual caseload to identify Afghan citizens with a continued need of international protection and distinguish them from economic migrants,". The agreement provides for the UNHCR's supervisory role in the return programme to ensure that repatriation is voluntary and is carried out safely, guaranteeing the dignity of refugees.

According to the UN officials, exact policies will be discussed on an ongoing basis by the Tripartite Commission, which will hold its first meeting in Pakistan at a date to be decided later.