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ISLAMABAD, 14 June (IRIN) - Islamabad is set to close more than a dozen Afghan refugee camps within four weeks, citing concerns over security. The camps have a total population of over 30,000 and are located in the North Waziristan agency of the western tribal belt, officials told IRIN.
"In total, about 14 camps would be closed. However, the [Afghan] population living outside the camps in urban or rural settlements would be allowed to stay on in the area," Jehangir Khan, head of the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CAR), said in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
According to the recent census of Afghans living in Pakistan, some 58,000 Afghan refugees are living in North Waziristan agency, over 30,000 of them in camps. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides health and education services to the camps, through implementing partners.
In a similar move in June last year, about 30,000 Afghan refugees in the adjoining South Waziristan agency were asked to leave the area, which was the scene of a full-scale offensive by Pakistani security forces as they attempted to weed out Islamic militants from positions near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
UNHCR has started preparing information leaflets to let Afghans know that they may choose either to be repatriated or to be relocated to other areas.
"The material would be handed over to CAR officials towards the end of this week, to distribute it amongst the Afghans living in camps since we can't move into the area," Jack Redden, a UNHCR spokesman, said.
In 2004, the UNHCR closed down about 12 'new' camps established near the Pakistan-Afghan border to shelter those fleeing the conflict of late 2001 in Afghanistan. Around 82,000 out of a total of 190,000 Afghans availed themselves of the refugee agency's special package for repatriation from 'new' camps, while others opted for relocation to other sites.
The UNHCR has started consultations with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan over long-term solutions for the millions of Afghans who may wish to stay on after the current tripartite agreement that runs out in March 2006.
"It also involves the rehabilitation of the refugee-affected areas. Beside, we are looking at providing assistance to those areas where Afghans are living at present, so that could be helpful for both Pakistani as well as Afghan communities," Redden said.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government is in consultation with different stakeholders with a view to the closure of more camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and Balochistan province, Khan said.
A total of about 2.3 million Afghan refugees have returned from Pakistan since the voluntary repatriation assistance programme of the UNHCR started in 2002. Nearly 70,000 have gone back so far this year. The refugee agency estimates some 400,000 Afghans will return by the end of the year out of over three million living in Pakistan.
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