BANNU, 14 July (IRIN) - More than 30,000 Afghan refugees have been assisted to repatriate over the past three weeks from North Waziristan agency in Pakistan's western tribal belt following Islamabad's decision to close the camp they were living in on 30 June for security reasons.
A large number of refugees still continue to show up at the registration centre of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This was set up in the adjacent tribal agency of Kurram to register those who wished to qualify for the agency's repatriation assistance.
"All the services being provided in the refugee camps in North Waziristan by the UNHCR have been stopped," Jack Redden, a spokesman for UNHCR said in Islamabad.
Pakistani authorities want phased closure of all refugee camps inside the western tribal belt, an area composed of seven districts bordering Afghanistan. The camps were established more than two decades ago. In May 2005, Pakistani authorities said they would close more than a dozen refugee camps housing over 38,000 Afghans, out of a total of 58,000 in the tribal North Waziristan agency, by the end of June.
UNHCR did not oppose the decision, primarily because the area has seen continued clashes between Pakistani security forces and militants that have made it impossible to properly assist the refugees there, a press statement from the refugee agency, said.
According to UNHCR, over 5,300 Afghan families responded when the agency launched a special four-day drive to register Afghans in North Waziristan wishing to avail themselves of the offer of assistance to return home. More than 27,000 individuals were processed in Bannu, 250 km southwest of Islamabad, according to UNHCR, at a special centre there.
"The number of camp residents who opted for repatriation was fairly large and couldn't all be processed. So, the remaining families are being served at the Alizai centre in the adjacent Kurram tribal agency," Redden said.
Most of the Afghan refugees moved to North Waziristan agency in the early 1980s, escaping the war between local Mujahideen and Soviet forces. Some are now well established, running shops and other businesses in the area. There will be special arrangements to assist those with vehicles, goods for sale or other bulky loads to cross into Afghanistan.
Many who spoke to IRIN said they were not enthusiastic about going back to Afghanistan but felt that it was now too difficult to make a new start in another part of Pakistan. Since 2003 Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan have been closing as the repatriation operation that began in March 2002 has progressed.
In 2003, UNHCR closed an unofficial camp on the border between Pakistan's southern Balochistan province and Afghanistan where some 20,000 Afghans had been effectively stranded since late 2001. By 2004, with hundreds of thousands of Afghans repatriating, more than a dozen "new" camps, established in Pakistan's western border areas to shelter Afghans fleeing the 2001 war that ousted the hard line Taliban, were also closed.
From those camps, around 82,000 out of a total of 190,000 Afghans availed themselves of the refugee agency's special package for repatriation, while others opted for relocation. At around same time in June 2004, another 30,000 Afghans from the restive South Waziristan tribal agency were also asked by Pakistani authorities to move out within 72 days.
According to a recent official census of Afghans living in Pakistan, over 330,000 Afghans were living in the tribal areas, either in camps or as part of the wider community.
Under the voluntary repatriation assistance programme, the UN refugee agency has helped some 2.4 million Afghans return to their homeland over the past three years. This constitutes the largest repatriation operation in the agency's 57-year history.
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