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Little Aid for Refugees Forced Out of Pakistan

The sudden closure of camps along the Pakistan-Afghan border drove thousands into a danger region beyond the reach of relief agencies.
By Hakim Basharat

Last March, Shamsul Haq and his family were given 72 hours to leave their home of four years in the Azam Worsak refugee camp in the Southern Waziristan area of Pakistan.


“We took our belongings from our house with us, but there were some families who took nothing with them," said Shamsul Haq.


Shamsul Haq, a native of Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan, was one of more than 4,000 refugee families who last spring were forced by the Pakistani government to flee four camps in Southern Waziristan, one of the a tribal agencies of north-western Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.


The majority of the refugees ended up in the southern Afghan province of Paktika, one of the most dangerous areas in Afghanistan.


The presence of such a large number of refugees in the region has created a humanitarian crisis, according to Habibullah Qaderi, the chief advisor at Afghanistan’s ministry for refugees.


Shamsul Haq is actually luckier than most of the returning refugees. Although he had a job in Pakistan, he was unable to find work in Paktika. So he spent whatever savings he had left to get himself and his family to Kabul.


Since arriving in the capital about a month ago, he and his family have been living with relatives. If he’s not able to find work here, he and his family will travel on to his home province.


But most of the returning refugees have remained in Paktika, a Taleban stronghold where members of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, and many non-governmental relief organisations have been reluctant to work because of the security situation.


Refugees first began fleeing Afghanistan in the late Seventies following the Soviet invasion. Since then, millions have fled to Pakistan, Iran or other neighbouring countries to escape war and drought.


Officials from both the government and UNHCR blame Pakistan for creating the current humanitarian crisis.


"Pakistan set a deadline of 72 hours for the refugees to leave their houses, which is illegal, unacceptable and against human rights," said Qaderi. “The refugees in Paktika have been left in bad conditions. They’re faced with a lack of water, food, and housing.”


Mohammed Nader Farhad, a spokesman for UNHCR in Kabul, was also critical of the short period of time Pakistan gave the refugees to leave the country. “[The refugees] left everything and went to a province where we have no reach," he said. UNHCR had no part in running those refugee camps in Southern Waziristan and does not have an office in Paktika province, Farhad said.


To provide assistance to the refugees, UNHCR has been working through the refugees ministry office in Paktika, and Swiss Peace, a non-governmental organisation.


Last month UNHCR financed the distribution of food and other relief supplies by Swiss Peace to 400 refugee families in Paktika, according to Massoud Karokhil, a field officer for Swiss Peace who works in the unstable provinces of Paktika, Paktia and Khost. Karokhil said that officials from the province and the ministry as well as local citizens helped with security and distribution.


Swiss Peace also indicated that it is preparing to deliver assistance to another 1,000 refugee families, and is hoping to establish an UNHCR-funded shelter program in the province.


Qaderi is appealing to UNHCR and aid agencies to provide additional help in Paktika. He has already received assurances of aid from the Afghan Red Crescent.


Meanwhile, security concerns in Paktika continue to hamper efforts to provide relief to those in need.


A report issued earlier this month by the Afghanistan NGO Security Office, ANSO, advised NGO workers to exercise “extreme caution” in travelling and working in the province.


“Locals are being intimidated and there have been indications that there is unrestricted movement of suspected insurgents across the province. The situation remains insecure,” warned the report.


Swiss Peace’s Karokhil seemed unfazed by the report, saying, “There are some security concerns, but in the past five months working here we haven’t faced any problems, because the local people are satisfied with our work."


All Swiss Peace employees in Paktika are Afghans.


Of greater concern are rumours reported by Qaderi that Pakistan may once again force a large number of refugees out of camps – this time in Northern Waziristan.


Officials at Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul would not confirm the report. But Pakistan’s ambassador Rostan Shah Mohmand justified the earlier expulsion of refugees, citing “security concerns”.


He said the refugees technically shouldn’t have been expelled, adding, “They came of their own accord and would have left of their own accord.” He explained that their sudden expulsion was prompted by an emergency situation in which the government had no other choice.


While Mohmand would not elaborate on the nature of the security concerns or emergency situation, the Pakistani government has in recent months stepped up its campaign to root out suspected Taleban and al-Qaeda insurgents believed to be hiding out in Waziristan. American forces are also engaged there.


Qaderi said he believes the eviction was in direct contravention of an agreement signed in 2002 by Afghanistan’s refugees ministry, the government of Pakistan and UNHCR that stipulated that Afghan refugees must not be forced to leave Pakistan against their will.


Last month, low-level talks were held by the refugee ministries of Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the UNHCR missions in both countries to try to resolve the issue.


According to Qaderi, the parties agreed, in principle, that Pakistan will not expel any more refugees from the camps without first finding another place for them to live.


According to the UNHCR’s Farhad, talks are still under way with Pakistani government officials about the country’s plan to help the estimated 190,000 Afghan refugees who remain in camps along the border, should Pakistan shut down any of these camps in future.


Hakim Basharat is a staff reporter for IWPR based in Kabul.


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