Afghanistan + 1 more

Pakistan: New refugee agreement honours principle of voluntary repatriation

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ISLAMABAD, 17 March (IRIN) - The governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Monday signed a tripartite agreement facilitating the return home of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees from Pakistan in three years.
"This agreement provides a framework for the final resolution of the 23-year-old question of Afghan refugees in Pakistan," spokesman for UNHCR, Jack Redden, told IRIN in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad on Monday. "If this agreement is carried through we will be approaching the final solution of this issue as most of the refugees would have gone back," he said.

Two Pakistani ministers, along with the Afghan minister for refugees and repatriation and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers signed the tripartite agreement on Monday in Belgium's capital Brussels.

"There is a three year framework for repatriation of refugees starting with this year and the numbers are not specified," Redden maintained. Earlier this month, UNHCR initiated its repatriation drive with a planning figure for 2003 of 600,000 Afghans to return home mainly from some 200 refugees camps in Pakistan, where an estimated 1.5 millions Afghans live. The numbers of Afghan refugees still living in Pakistani cities is estimated at up to 1.5 million.

The agreement calls for the formation of a tripartite commission meeting every three months. "The main purpose of this is to oversee the voluntary repatriation programme and their reintegration," the spokesman explained.

In another key clause the agreement said: "The parties hereby reaffirm that the repatriation of Afghan citizens who had sought refuge in Pakistan shall only take place at their freely expressed wish, based on their knowledge of the conditions relating to voluntary repatriation."

According to Redden, technical issues delayed the signing of the agreement. "The general principles like the three years repatriation was accepted earlier on last fall but there were technical disagreements over things like the definition of refugees," he said.

This is the second agreement of its kind in the region. Last year the refugee agency concluded a similar agreement with Iran and Afghanistan. UNHCR and Afghanistan has also signed similar agreements with France and United Kingdom. Another such agreement is expected to be signed with the Netherlands on Tuesday.

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