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UN urges Pakistan not to push back Afghan refugees

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By Mark Bendeich

KABUL, June 5 (Reuters) – The United Nations urged Pakistan on Tuesday not to force Afghan refugees back to their homeland when it shuts four border camps soon, saying Afghanistan was already swamped by Afghans evicted from Iran.

Afghanistan, crippled by more than 20 years of war, has millions of its people either in refugee camps or working illegally in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. Many send back money, sustaining communities inside the impoverished nation.

But in April Iran stepped up evictions of Afghans classed as illegal immigrants, deporting about 100,000 Afghans since then — equal to almost a third of all those previously evicted by Iran in 2006, the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, said on Tuesday.

Now, with Pakistan planning to shut down camps holding more than 220,000 Afghan refugees by the end of August, the UNHCR urged Pakistan to tread carefully, fearful that impoverished Afghanistan could be hit from east and west by floods of people.

“It has to happen in a peaceful way,” said the UNHCR’s representative to Afghanistan, Salvatore Lombardo.

Pakistan says more than 2 million Afghan refugees and wants them to go home, saying refugee camps are fertile recruiting grounds for Afghan Taliban insurgents.

It plans to close two camps near Pakistan’s northwestern border, Katchagari and Jalozai, and two near the southwestern frontier, Jungle Pir Alizai and Girdi Jungle.

Refugees in the camps can volunteer to return home or move to another camp in Pakistan, but so far no one has approached the UNHCR to relocate elsewhere in Pakistan and only 5,500 people had opted for repatriation, the UNHCR said.

Lombardo said Pakistan had given assurances that the camps would be closed peacefully but added: “We are also very concerned about the fact that the capacity of this country to absorb a large number (of returnees) is very limited.”

But Pakistan’s Ministry of State and Frontier Region said it was confident the refugees would go home without much trouble.

“We are sure that they will return to their country and I don’t see any difficulties in that,” said Chief Commissioner Abdur Rauf Khan, who deals with the issue in the ministry.

He told Reuters there had been some problems in the two southwestern camps but the ministry continued to talk to refugees there. In the northwest, officials had already begun demolishing houses and shops of refugees who had already repatriated.

“We will not force them but we are confident that we will be able to persuade them to return,” Khan said.

Lombardo said many Afghans evicted from Iran had been trucked across the border and dumped in areas traumatised by fighting between Taliban rebels and Western and Afghan forces. The rate had slowed but about 1,000 Afghans were being deported each day.

“The way in which they were deported was pretty awful,” he said.

Afghanistan’s foreign ministry said it had assurances from both Iran and Pakistan that repatriations would be orderly and voluntary but said both its neighbours needed to understand that Afghanistan could not cope with mass deportations.

“This is our demand of both countries,” foreign ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Baheen said.

The closure of the camps is set to be on the agenda of a meeting in Dubai on Friday between the UNHCR and the Afghan and Pakistan governments, Lombardo said. (Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony in Islamabad)

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Written by afghandevnews

June 7, 2007 at 11:12 pm

Posted in Refugees

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