By Malik Siraj Akbar
QUETTA: Seventeen thousand, one hundred and fifty-one Afghan refugees, sheltering in the well known Jungle Pir Alizai refugee camp in Qila Abdullah, a district of Balochistan, have not registered with the Pakistani government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Currently, there are 113,655 unregistered Afghan refugees in Balochistan.
Skirmishes between Afghan refugees and Pakistani security forces broke out last week in the refugee camp at Qila Abdullah, killing four people. Where have 17,152 refugees gone from Jungle Pir Alizai since those clashes?
The Government of Pakistan and the UNHCR signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on December 17, 2004 to carry out a detailed census of the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan since December 1, 1979. The criteria fixed for registration made it mandatory for the Afghans to register in the presence of their family heads and from the district where they had been counted in the census.
The six-million-dollar census, conducted in February and March 2005, counted 3.04 million Afghans living in Pakistan, out of which 769,268 (25.2 percent of the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan) were found to be living in Balochistan.
According to the census, the number of refugees taking shelter in Jungle Pir Alizai, located 63 kilometers away from Balochistan’s capital of Quetta, was as high as 35,000. However, when the government and the UNHCR decided to register Afghan refugees living in Balochistan, as they had done in other parts of the country, a sharp decline was witnessed in the number of refugees. The registration process, which began on October 15, 2006 and went on till February 12, 2007, counted only 17,848 people in a camp of 2,569 households.
Daily Times spoke to an official of the UNHCR to ask why enough Afghans had not turned up for the registration process. “Many of them had gone to Iran, Afghanistan, the UAE or to other countries for business. Interestingly, others had gone to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj,” said the official.
Who granted permission to these Afghan refugees to move out of Pakistan? Who gave them valid traveling documents? How had they managed to obtain fake national identity cards (NICs) and Pakistani passports? “You had better put these questions to the government,” said another UNHCR official. “Obviously, some government department is overtly or covertly involved in this fraud.”
When Daily Times contacted government officials, none from the Balochistan Government, including the Home and Tribal Department and the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), had answers.
The total number of refugee camps in Balochistan is 12, of which two camps, Jungle Pir Alizai and Girdi Jungle are still in place despite the government’s decision to close them down by June 20, 2005. The other ten camps are Posti, Lejay Karez, Chaghi, Malgagai, Katwai, Gahzgai Minara, Zar Karez, Surkhab, Saranan and Mohammad Kheil. According to the census of 2005, the total number of refugees in all these camps was 231,960. The registration process, however, only recorded 118,305 people. Duniya Aslam Khan, media officer of the UNHCR’s Balochistan programme, told Daily Times that her organisation established and closed refugee camps while considering the plight of the refugees. “The UNHCR moves to the people’s aid if they are in bad conditions, but camps are shut down as soon as the situation is normal,” she said.
Refugees living in these camps were given two options. They either voluntarily agree to be repatriated to Afghanistan, in return for which, the UNHCR would provide them US$ 1,000 per individual and free transportation facilities, or they should consent to be relocated to Mohammad Kheil camp (in 2005-2006) and now in Gahzgai Minara camp.
Refugee elders and some nationalist political parties resisted the government’s move to close these camps. They demanded that the official deadline be extended, as leaving the camps overnight was not possible for them. After all, they argued, they had been living in these camps for the past thirty years.
The government extended the deadline for Jungle Pir Alizai camp thrice, from June 2005 to July 31, 2005, from then to April 30, 2006 and then June 2006 were fixed as dead lines but to no avail. “The recent clash between the security forces and the Afghan refugees indicates that the task of eliminating these camps is not a bed of roses for the government,” stated an observer.