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Pakistan: Report sheds new light on Afghan refugee community

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ISLAMABAD, 3 May 2007 (IRIN) - The vast majority of Afghan citizens (82 percent) registered in Pakistan say they had no intention of returning to their homeland in the near future, according to the final report on the registration of more than two million Afghans living in the country.

The report was launched on Thursday by the Pakistani government and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

"Now at least we have fixed the number at 2.15 million and have a baseline to work from," Vivian Tan, senior regional public information officer for UNHCR, told IRIN in the capital, Islamabad.

Administered by Pakistan's National Database Authority under the auspices of the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, Pakistan's Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CAR), and the UN refugee agency, the results of a 15-week registration effort set the stage for better assisting one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world today.

"The basic objective of the registration effort was to fix the Afghan refugee population in Pakistan in order to manage the development, welfare and more importantly, the phased repatriation of Afghans to their homeland with dignity and honor," CAR's head, Nayyar Agha, added.

Under the US $6 million registration drive funded by Pakistan, the European Commission, the USA and Britain, all Afghans above the age of five who registered received Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, valid for three years, recognising them as Afghan citizens temporarily living in the country. Many of them have lived in the country for decades. (Children under five are listed on one of their parents' cards).

But it was the demographics and socio-economic profiles of Thursday's report which proved most interesting, showing that the Afghans living in Pakistan were by no means a monolithic entity.

Close to 300,000 or nearly 14 percent of registered Afghans reported having special needs, including the need for special legal and physical protection, as well as female-headed households, important medical conditions and children/youth at risk.

"This information could help us and the two governments [Pakistan and Afghanistan] to find solutions for each group in the coming years," Tan said.

Equally interesting was the very young age of the Afghan population in the country, with 74 percent being under the age of 28, suggesting that many were born and raised in Pakistan since the influx of Afghan refugees first began in 1979 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

"The Afghan population's young age is interesting in the sense that many were probably born in exile and have few links with Afghanistan," Tan said. "They are a source of great potential whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but need to be developed through education and vocational training," the UNHCR official added.

But that will prove a key challenge in the coming years, with approximately 71 percent of the Afghans registered having no formal education, and only 20 percent actually active in Pakistan's labour market.

Of the later, almost half worked as unskilled or daily wage labourers. Moreover, 83 percent of working Afghans earned less than Pakistan's minimum wage of US $67 per month.

Yet another interesting finding of the report is that while in a 2005 census of Afghans in Pakistan, most people cited lack of shelter, land and livelihoods in their homeland as the primary impediments to their return, security had now emerged as the primary barrier.

Of those registered, 41.6 percent cited security as their foremost concern, followed by shelter at almost 31 percent, and livelihoods at 24.4 percent.

Nonetheless, the issue of access to land/shelter remains a major barrier for many Afghans returning as well, with 89 percent reporting to be landless.

According to the report, 64 percent of those registered live in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) bordering Afghanistan, while 21 percent live in Balochistan further to the south.

Currently, Afghans constitute six percent of NWFP's population and 5.9 percent in Balochistan.

Close to a million Afghans live in 86 camps across the country, indicating that more than half (55 percent) of all registered Afghans live outside camps, the report said.

In terms of places of origin, 21 percent originate from Afghanistan's south-eastern Nangarhar province, followed by Kabul (11.2 percent), the northern province of Kunduz (9.7 percent) and the southeastern provinces of Logar and Paktya (6.6 percent), respectfully.

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