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Pakistan: Afghan refugee schools face closure

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ISLAMABAD, 13 June (IRIN) - The Pakistani government is planning to close at least 95 middle and high schools meant for Afghan refugee children in the country's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) by the end of June because of a shortage of funds, according to officials.

"About half a million dollars are required annually to run these schools. Presently, we do not have enough funds. So we are left with no option except closure unless any alternate is generated," Dr Imran Zeb, director at the office of the Chief Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CCAR), said in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Monday. CCAR is the state body dealing with Afghan refugee issues.

Over 8,000 Afghan refugee children are enrolled in 70 middle schools run by the CCAR and another 25 high schools they run in various refugee camps across the NWFP. In addition, more than 800 teachers have been employed in these educational institutions, who face redundancy after the planned closures.

From their establishment in the 1980s, all these schools were run by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but were handed over to the CCAR in 1995, according to Zeb.

After that date, they were operated with funding from the UN World Food Programme (WFP), UNHCR and the Pakistani government.

Primary education for Afghan refugee children living in camps also faces cuts. UNHCR's budget for the education programme in refugee camps has significantly decreased from US $6 million in 2003, to about $4.7 million in 2004, with a further decrease to around $3.7 million allocated for education in 2005.

"Not specifically the education, but our overall budget has shrank a lot from 2002 onwards due to a decrease in the refugee population in camps following repatriation," Jack Redden, a UNHCR spokesman, told IRIN in Islamabad.

At present, some 144,000 male and female Afghan students are enrolled in 328 schools in 144 UNHCR-administered camps in the two provinces of Balochistan and NWFP.

Refugee education experts are concerned at the cutbacks. "This [cut] is far above the proportion of refugees expected to return home from the camps," Atle Hetland, an international development expert, recently wrote in the leading Pakistani English-language daily 'The News'.

"Without education there is not much of a future for them at home. Even worse, there is a risk that some of the refugees and the marginalised returnees in major cities will engage in destabilising and anti-social activities," Hetland warned.

"[The] Pakistan government feels that the biggest asset that we could give to [Afghan] returnees is education," Zeb said, adding that the government was holding consultations with donors to pool the required funds in an effort to prevent the closure of schools.

According to local analysts, no solution was in sight yet to avert the situation with less than three weeks left before the deadline.

[ENDS]

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