By Ron Synovitz
Citing security concerns, Pakistan's government is evicting some 30,000 Afghans from an impoverished refugee settlement near Islamabad. The name of the illegal settlement, Kacha Abadi, literally means "houses made from mud." Thousands of poor Afghan refugees have gathered there during the past 25 years -- establishing a tent city before eventually building primitive mud-brick shelters on land they do not own. Islamabad's eviction order comes after consultations with both the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Afghan government. The UNHCR says the move is not "forcible repatriation" because refugees can choose to either go voluntarily back to Afghanistan or to official refugee camps further from the capital. But several residents of Kacha Abadi told RFE/RL they fear they will be unable to feed their families if they move away from employment opportunities in Islamabad and neighboring Rawalpindi.
Prague, 4 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Pir Mohammad is a 30-year-old refugee from Afghanistan's Logar Province who has lived in Pakistan since he was a boy. For the last 15 years, he and his family have lived in an illegal refugee settlement near Islamabad called Kacha Abadi.
Pir Mohammad said the situation for most of the 30,000 Afghan refugees at Kacha Abadi is desperate. There is no clean drinking water, hygienic food, electricity, or sewage system.
Pir Mohammad can barely afford to feed his family. He does not have money to pay school tuition for his children. Instead, the entire family spends its days looking for menial jobs in order to survive. "We are temporary workers. [If we find work for one day,] we earn about 100 to 120 rupees -- [about $2.5]," he said. "We are going to different bazaars in Islamabad or Rawalpindi to look for work. Sometimes we sit all day at the crossroads waiting for a ride. If somebody stops to give us a ride, we can go to try to find work. If they don't then we return home [at the end of the day without money.]"
Pir Mohammad expects life to become even more difficult because of an eviction order announced on 2 August by Pakistan's Interior Ministry. All Afghan refugees at Kacha Abadi have been told to either go back to Afghanistan or move to one of several official refugee camps far from Islamabad.
Pir Mohammad said it will be more difficult to find work from those refugee camps. But even then, he said he expects the situation would be better than Afghanistan.
"We cannot go back to Afghanistan because our homes there are destroyed. We cannot rebuild our homes because we do not have enough money. And we don't have land for farming. That's why we stay here. Because here, at least, we can hope to find something to feed our children," Pir Mohammad said.
The Kacha Abadi evictions come at a time when Islamabad is under intense international pressure to crack down on religious extremism. Since last month's deadly terrorist attacks in London by British-born Muslims thought to have trained in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf also has banned foreigners from studying at madrasahs in Pakistan.
The Interior Ministry says Kacha Abadi poses a security threat because it is close to the capital and, according to Pakistani officials, is sometimes used as a safe haven by "criminals and terrorists."
Afghan Deputy Minister for Refugee Affairs Mohammad Naim Ghiyasi told RFE/RL that Islamabad had been in months of talks about Kacha Abadi with authorities from Kabul and the UNHCR. Ghiyasi says this week's eviction order is the result of an agreement from all parties in those talks.
"If they transfer these people to other refugee camps, there will be good security. And so I think there won't be such security problems in the other camps. [Kacha Abadi] is close to the capital. So they try to send these refugees to camps that are far from the capital and far from Rawalpindi," Ghiyasi said.
Mohammad Nader Farhad, UNHCR's spokesman in Afghanistan, told RFE/RL that the evictions are not "forcible repatriations." Thus, he says, they do not violate international laws like the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees.
"These Afghans are given the chance of either relocation to the already existing camps in Pakistan or to go back to their country of origin using the assistance of the UNHCR's volunteer repatriation program," Farhad said. "As far as the UNHCR is concerned, as long as Afghans are given the option of relocating to another camp the return of Afghans is not forcible. We have always asked the government of Pakistan and neighboring countries that the return of Afghans should be voluntary, gradual, and dignified."
But Afghan refugee Mohammad Nabi says the situation is not dignified. Like other refugees at Kacha Abadi, he alleges that authorities are forcing them go back to Afghanistan by making it impossible to live in Pakistan. Having lived for 10 years at Kacha Abadi, Nabi questions the motives behind the sudden eviction order. He said he thinks it is part of a wider plan by Islamabad to push out all remaining Afghan refugees. "They are finding excuses to get rid of us -- to send us away," he said. "They are asking us what we are doing here. [Pakistani police tell us,] 'you must go back to your homeland.' But we can't go home."
Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and factional fighting during the 1990s. Although more than 2 million of them have returned to their homeland since the collapse of the Taliban in late 2001, a joint study by Islamabad and the UNHCR earlier this year estimated there are still about 3 million Afghan refugess in Pakistan. That study says about 1 million of them live in official refugee camps.
Ghiyasi says close involvement of the UNHCR should ensure those refugees are not forced back to Afghanistan against their own will. "I think in the next phase [Islamabad] will think of [urging more Afghan refugees to go home] because they are trying to move the refugees slowly and voluntarily from the cities to the camps," the Afghan official said. "In this way, it appears they want the refugees to make up their own minds to return to [Afghanistan]. What can we do? It is their country. [Pakistani authorities] say Afghans should go back home. They say there are no more problems in Afghanistan."
Under plans to expand the city limits of Pakistan's capital, the area now occupied by Kacha Abida will soon become part of Islamabad.
Although a deadline has not been given for Afghans to leave Kacha Abida, reports say Pakistan's Capital Development Authority has begun to demolish some of the mud brick buildings occupied by refugees.
(RFE/RL's Afghan Service correspondents Najib Aamir in Pakistan and Najib Aziz and Sultan Sarwar in Prague also contributed to this story )
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