The Pakistani government has decided to close the Jalozai Refugee Camp and has given families weeks to go leave the camp, and presumably, go back to Afghanistan. The Daily Times reports that since March 1,, some 303 refugees have already left Pakistan’s largest refugee camp. One of the oldest refugee camps in the country, Jalozai is home to some 80,000 refugees. The closing is part of a voluntary repatriation program put forth by the Pakistani government and it seems that the Pakistani government has been reluctant or unwilling to force the matter. While they are encouraging these deadlines, it does not appear that they will do much to people who choose to stay.
The camp was created immediately after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 when thousands of Afghans fled to neighboring Pakistan. Many of those going back do not know Afghanistan. Furthermore, it seems that the majority of the refugees in Pakistan are from southern Afghanistan, home of the countries Pashtoon population and of course, the stronghold of the Taliban. One refugee put the dilemmas succinctly.
If they choose the take the Afghan governments help, they will face the wrath of the Taliban. If they seek the protection of the Taliban, they will be crushed by the government. IRIN, the news service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, quotes one refugee who ‘I don’t want to go to Afghanistan. There is nothing for me there. There are no jobs and it’s not safe’.
There are some 80 Afghan refugee camps throughout Pakistan, 71 of which are in the volatile North-West Frontier Province. According to the United Nations, some three million Afghans have returned to their homeland from Pakistan since the launch of the voluntary repatriation program in March 2002.
‘Process might take time’: Commissioner for Refugees Dr Imran Zeb told Daily Times that the agency had planned for process to be completed by April 15, but that this was not the final date for the closure of the camp. He added that because the process was voluntary and peaceful, it was expected to be slow and would take some time.
However, he said, the camp had to be closed this time and there would be no postponing of its closure, as in the past. “The major issue right now is the closure of Jalozai camp, and then the settlers have their choice to migrate to their country or move to other locations to live there for the rest of their stay period in Pakistan,” he said.
Earlier, UN officials had said that refugees at Jalozai were free to shift to other camps in Miawnali in Punjab or Dir and Chitral in the NWFP if they did not want to go back to their homeland until the expiry of the three-year period permitted by their temporary registration cards.
This recent segment from Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder does a great job in explaining the situation and looking at how the process is moving forward.
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