Afghanistan + 1 more

Pakistan: UNHCR ready for Afghan camp closures

ISLAMABAD, 14 June 2007 (IRIN) - Plans are in place to help thousands of Afghan refugees living in two Pakistan camps, due to close this week, to relocate, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said.

"UNHCR has established special information centres in and around the camps to provide Afghans with information on their options to relocate or voluntarily repatriate," Babar Baloch, a spokesman for UNHCR, told IRIN in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on 14 June.

"Together with the Government of Pakistan's Commission for Afghan Refugees' provincial offices, UNHCR is ready to receive Afghans who opt for the relocation option," Baloch said.

His comments come on the eve of the closures of the camps in western Pakistan that house more than 80,000 Afghans, many of whom have lived in the country since the 1979 Soviet invasion of their homeland.

Established in the 1980s, the Kacha Gari refugee camp in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Jungle Pir Alizai refugee camp in southwestern Balochistan province, 62km west of the provincial capital Quetta, are to close on 15 June.

Two other camps, Jalozai in NWFP and Girdi Jungle in Balochistan, are scheduled to close on 15 August.

Pakistan decided to close all four camps this year after claims they harboured criminal elements and cross-border insurgents - a contentious issue that Islamabad has been keen to resolve.

As part of the government's plan, residents of all four camps will either repatriate to their homeland, availing themselves of UNHCR assistance, or relocate to other government-designated camps inside Pakistan.

Residents living in Kacha Gari and Jalozai in NWFP have the option to relocate to the Dodba refugee camp in upper Dir, while those at Girdi Jungle and Jungle Pir Alizai may shift to Ghazgai Minara in Loralai, both of which have basic water, health and education facilities.

"All Afghan refugees in the camps [slated for closure] have to decide on one of the two options available to them," Baloch said.

But that will remain a tough sell for the more than two million Afghan refugees officially in Pakistan, many of whom have lived in the country their entire lives.

A recent report on the registration of Afghans living in the country said the majority (82 percent) had no intention of returning home in the near future, with 41 percent citing insecurity as the primary factor.

And while to date no Afghans had asked to relocate, UNHCR expected approximately 10 percent of the two camps' populations to come forward.

"Preparations have been made to receive and provide assistance to this population in the camps designated for relocation," Baloch said, adding that additional space and infrastructure could be made available if initial estimates were exceeded.

Pakistan authorities are adamant there will be no more extensions for the camps, even though there is doubt the deadline will be met.

Khalid Mahmood, provincial commissioner for refugees, told IRIN from Quetta that plans to close Jungle Pir Alizai were on course even if the deadline is missed. "There will be no more extensions. The camp will close very soon, but I can't say when."

Activities to close the camp were suspended by Balochistan's provincial authorities, after an outbreak of violence between Pakistani security forces and refugees at the camp after authorities attempted to demolish several homes around the camp area on 16 May.

The clashes came a day after at least 70 shops and three homes were razed at the Kacha Gari camp.