Time for Afghan refugees to return

Pauktaw refugee camp in BurmaPosted by Faheem Belharvi

In a press release issued in November 2012, the United Nations Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) revealed that some 3.7 million Afghan refugees have returned home through UNHCR’s largest voluntary repatriation programme since 2002, while around 1.66 million registered Afghan refugees still remain in Pakistan.

According to a survey conducted by UNHCR public information unit 1.65 million refugees remaining in Pakistan are a residual caseload experiencing challenges to their prospects for return. The ongoing returns are the largest voluntary repatriation operation anywhere in the world. From 2002 to 2012, UNHCR Pakistan has facilitated the voluntary repatriation of 3.8 million refugees.

In same press release the UNHCR also announced special relief package for Afghan refugees for their voluntary return to their home country during November and December 2012. Under the package, returning Afghan refugees would be paid $150, free transport and household items.

This package would end on December 31, 2012.9 December 2012, during 22nd Tripartite Commission meeting Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR have again reaffirmed their commitment to voluntary and dignified On repatriation of Afghan refugees reiterating repatriation being the best solution for both the countries to end protracted Afghanistan refugee situation in Pakistan. These initiatives of Pakistan’s Ministry of States and Frontier Region (SAFRON) and UNHCR are encouraging and urge that all efforts should be undertaken to expedite voluntary repatriation of refugees in a sustainable manner and to intensify efforts for durable reintegration in Afghanistan.

Repatriation of Afghan refugees under present circumstances has become imperative for Pakistan as well. For the last three decades, Pakistan has been extending traditional hospitality to Afghan refugees. The Afghans have always described Pakistan as their second homeland and freely continued their business activities in Pakistan and developed friendly relations with people in all parts of the country. Successive governments in Pakistan have continued policies meant for the welfare of Afghan refugees and the incumbent government is more conscious about the problems of the people and is trying to enable the refugees to move back to their [homeland] with honour and dignity.

Even the recent proposal for unregistered Afghan nationals to return to their country voluntarily does not comprise of bad intentions at all. In the initial years of arrival of Afghan refugees, Pakistan used to receive some assistance from the international community but now it has been left to bear the burden alone and in the present circumstances the country is finding it difficult to continue extending the hospitality for an indefinite period. With conflict looming large in Afghanistan, bulks of refugees continue to cross the border into the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, particularly around the city of Peshawar taking refugee in government settled camps there.

The call for urgent repatriation of refugees is not only for the security reasons but also the economic degradation of Pakistan and the assistance fatigues as well. Hosting one of the world’s largest Afghan refugee communities for over a quarter of century has had a negative impact on the resources and environment of Pakistan. Afghan refugees in Pakistan have invariably been involved in criminal activities like dacoity, arson, kidnappings, smuggling, drugs, gun running, money laundering and sex crimes etc. They have also been involved in obtaining fake identity cards, passports, Nikkah Namas and other documents. Of late, they are reported to be involved in tribal and sectarian feuds in Kurram Agency and many other places. This is further exacerbated by the lack of border management by Afghanistan and the continued unregulated movements of people, particularly to and from Afghanistan. Also, refugees’ prolonged presence in Pakistan has become a burden on local economy as it disturbs supply/ demand situation in Pakistan.

It also poses unhealthy competition for rich as well as low level investors. Due to their low wages, Afghan refugees have been attractive labourers, masons and drivers etc, thus offering a tough competition to local manpower and related human resource management. The refugee requirements for pastures for their herds of camels, goats, cattle and sheep have provoked disputes with the indigenous population over gazing rights.

The sharing of space, resources and jobs with the Afghans has taken its toll on the local population ultimately, fueling resentment to presence of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.Due to emerging geo political and security implications, the longstanding presence of Afghan refugees on Pakistan’s soil has increasingly begun to emerge as an irritant to bilateral relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since Pakistan is confronted with its own economic woes and serious threats to its own social fabric creating law and order problems besides immoral and anti-social activities, there is a need for Afghan refugees to return to their own country. Repatriation of refugees will not only place Pakistan in better position but also help reduce suspicion of Kabul of militants’ infiltration into Afghanistan from across the border areas of Pakistan.(Shamsa Ashfaq)

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