AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN: Afghans reluctant to leave Jalozai refugee camp
PESHAWAR, 20 March 2008 (IRIN) – Afghans in Jalozai refugee camp, Pakistan’s largest refugee camp, are reluctant to leave, despite a deadline to vacate coming up in less than a month.
“I don’t want to go to Afghanistan. There is nothing for me there. There are no jobs and it’s not safe,” 24-year-old Aman, who has lived his entire life in the sprawling community of mud-brick homes, 35km southwest of Peshawar, said.
“How could we possibly return?” Fatema Bibi, a 35-year-old mother-of-four asked. “Once we get there, how are we to live?”
Long slated for closure by the government, Jalozai, one of the oldest refugee camps in the country, is home to 80,000, many of whom have lived in the camp for decades.
Re-scheduled to close at the end of 2007, that deadline was later extended to 15 April 2008 due to the impending winter.
Under the terms of an agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), two other camps – Girdi Jungle and Jungle Piralizai in Balochistan Province – are also slated for closure in 2008.
As part of the government’s plan, camp residents have the option of either repatriating to their homeland, taking advantage of UNHCR assistance, or relocating to other camps in the Punjab or North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
“UNHCR and the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees has facilitated a ‘go and see’ visit for refugees in the camps if they want to take the relocation option,” UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told IRIN in Islamabad. The UNHCR has established an information and counselling centre in Jalozai to help Afghans make an informed decision, he said.
But progress on vacating the camp has proven slow, a fact acknowledged by the government. Imran Zeb, the government commissioner for Afghan refugees, says the process will be completed by mid April, but that is not likely to be the final closure date; he cited the voluntary nature of the return process.
There are over 80 Afghan refugee camps in the country, including 71 in NWFP, 12 in Balochistan Province and one in Punjab Province.
According to UNHCR, over three million Afghans have returned to their homeland from Pakistan since the launch of the voluntary repatriation programme in March 2002, most – 1.5 million – in the first year of the programme.
Nearly two million Afghans remain in the country – one million of whom live in camps – more than seven years after the collapse of the Taliban regime in December 2001.
Since the resumption of UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation programme at the beginning of March 2008, over 4,500 Afghans have returned home, 352 from Jalozai.