Exiled Students Set to Come Home

Afghan universities are to offer places to hundreds of students returning from exile in Pakistan.

Exiled Students Set to Come Home

Afghan universities are to offer places to hundreds of students returning from exile in Pakistan.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Afghan refugees in Pakistan are returning home in such numbers that the university they attend in Peshawar is making plans to close and transfer all its students back to their homeland.

The first group of students will return in July at the end of the academic year - those who wish to continue with their education will be enrolled in universities in Afghanistan.

It is one of the strongest signs yet that Afghans who have found shelter in Pakistan over the years have concluded that it will be safe to return, despite international concerns over the security situation there.

Peshawar's Afghan University - which has some 2,000 students, a third of them women - was formed in 1999 by consolidating a number of private institutions that had sprung up over the years. It established links with the new education authorities in Kabul soon after the Taleban rulers - under which education suffered across the board - were overthrown.

Last January, a delegation from the university traveled to Kabul to discuss registering the Peshawar-based institution. The outcome of the talks was an agreement that the university would continue to function as long as it was needed by refugees in Pakistan.

However, the need for it diminishes by the day as the rate of exiles returning home accelerates. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has predicted that some 400,000 would go back this year, but the number has exceeded all expectations. Some half a million have already taken advantage of the agency's repatriation programme.

A delegation from the Kabul government recently visited the university and concluded students should transfer as soon as possible to Afghanistan, but would be allowed to finish the academic year in July before returning home.

The Afghan University is also trying to win agreement from the authorities in Kabul to take in students who completed high school but who missed the chance of higher education while living in Pakistan. Even though tuition costs were low - 280 rupees (around 5 dollars) a month - many refugees could not afford them.

"It was agreed that our students would be accepted at any university in Afghanistan and all our assets would be transferred to the ministry of higher education in Kabul," said Asadullah Shinwari, the director of the Afghan University.

Many refugee students are keen to study at Kabul University, but they are unlikely to find places.

Kabul University, devastated by fighting between mujahedin factions in the early Nineties, and struggling now to reclaim its former status as a major regional centre of learning, will not be able to accommodate a large influx of students.

"The education ministry can't accept all the students in Kabul due to the current situation - a lack of supplies, places for students and

teachers - so it decided to send them to institutions near their hometowns," said Shinwari.

They will join several thousand youngsters who took university entrance exams in towns and cities across Afghanistan in February.

Unless something goes badly wrong inside Afghanistan and the homeward flow of refugees halts or reverses, Peshawar's Afghan University is likely to have closed by July next year. The facilities will be handed back to the Pakistani authorities and the institution will be consigned to Afghanistan's troubled past.

Lida Faizi, a journalism student at the Afghan University, attended an IWPR reporting course in Peshawar.

Pakistan, Afghanistan
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