PESHAWAR - The countdown has begun for Afghan refugees to vacate the Jalozai camp, 35 km east of this border city in Pakistan.
An estimated 88,000-registered refugees, many of whom have lived here for close to three decades, have been told to leave. Pakistani authorities said bulldozers will flatten the makeshift, mud-plastered homes in Jalozai after Apr. 15, the deadline for voluntary repatriation. Last July, the largest Afghan refugee camp, Kacha Garhi, was razed to the ground after it was shut.
Those who choose not to go have the option of shifting to new refugee camps that have been established in Dir and Chitral, North West Frontier Province (NWFP), 150 km and 425 km respectively from Peshawar, which will remain open up to 2009.
With the security situation worsening, and the failure of the Karzai government to tackle joblessness, most refugees fear a return to hopelessness in Afghanistan.
"We are better off here. I earn roughly 35 US dollars a day, which is quite enough money," said Abdul Waheed, a fruit seller at the camp who arrived in Jalozai 16 years ago. His three sons and three daughters do not want to go back either. "Back home there are no jobs, no schools, no business, no health facilities. Everything there (in Afghanistan) is in shambles," he added.
Another refugee, Rasool Mohammad who has lived in Jalozai for 13 years is preparing to leave. "We have packed our belongings," he said. "My two sons have gone to Kabul to register at a camp there, and locate a house for our 12-member family."
Commissioner Afghan Refugees (CAR), Nasir Azam, has ruled out any further extensions. According to Haji Dost Mohammad, a camp elder, refugee representatives had pleaded for a few more weeks in order to enable thousands of children to complete the school year by end-April.
Ghazal Gul, a final year student of a school in Jalozai, was categorical his family will not leave. "We cannot go. We will stay with relatives if we are forced to leave. The situation in Afghanistan isn't worth living," she said.
A veiled Afghan woman in a sky-blue burqa, her baby in her arms, waits in front of the camp of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to register. She identifies herself as Raeesa Bibi. Originally from Jalalabad, on the road from Kabul to Peshawar, she does not want to return to her country. "My husband died of cancer three years ago," the 39-year-old said. "I work in the houses of local people who feed my three children and meet other requirements."
In Afghanistan, she fears her children would starve to death, and she would be reduced to begging for a living.
Pakistani authorities have begun cracking down. Some 250 shops owned by Afghan refugees in Jalozai were demolished on Mar. 5.
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Camp residents will be sent back in two phases. All those belonging to eastern Nangarhar province and areas adjacent to the Pakistan border will be repatriated followed by those from the northern parts of Afghanistan.
The UNHCR claims 2.8 million Afghans have returned home from Pakistan since 2002. An estimated 1.2 million Afghans may be living illegally in the country, according to the police. Tahir Khan, a police officer, told IPS: "Every day, some 50 illegal Afghans are arrested and deported."
The decision to shut down Jalozai was taken at a jirga (tribal assembly) called by CAR and 50 Afghan elders from the camp on Sep. 5, 2007. The refugees agreed to voluntarily vacate the camp before it is shut down on Apr. 30, 2008.
Maulvi Mohammad Qayyum, one of the participants at the jirga, told IPS that they had pinned their hopes on the UNHCR and Afghan government establishing camps for the returning refugees. But nothing has so far happened.
Jalozai camp was set up in the early 1980s by the United Nations as a temporary haven for Afghan refugees. Their country has been in turmoil since the Cold War years of rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Army. When the Soviet army rode into Kabul in 1979 at the invitation of the then communist-regime, Washington retaliated by arming and financing Afghan mujahiddin groups based in Pakistan.
Millions of Afghans have crossed into Pakistan and Iran fleeing successive years of war, famine and drought.
Since the Hamid Karzai government was installed in Afghanistan after U.S.-led troops ousted the Taliban regime in end-2001, Pakistan has been urging the refugees to return. Nine of the 24 refugee camps in NWFP and FATA, the centrally administered tribal areas on the Afghan border, have closed.
More than 2 million Afghans recently registered with the government under a UNHCR programme that grants them temporary resident status in Pakistan for three years.
The UNHCR has supervised the voluntary repatriation of Afghans but the process has slowed down with the re-emergence of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan triggering another wave of displacements. Some 350,000 refugees were repatriated in 2007. Each was paid approximately 100 dollars -- a transport and reintegration grant.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has urged the government not to violate refugees' rights and international norms on the protection of refugees. Pakistan is not a signatory to the U.N.'s 1951 Refugee Convention.
© 2008 Inter Press Service