Comprehensive census of Afghans under way

The Pakistani government and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have announced that they will undertake a census of all Afghans who are living in the country by the end of February. It will be the most comprehensive survey of its kind and provide vital information to allow Islamabad to formulate long term policy on Afghan refugees and economic migrants residing in the country.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, announced on Tuesday in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, that the census would help in developing policies for those Afghans who chose to remain in Pakistan after the expiry of the tripartite agreement for voluntary repatriation in March 2006. "It'll give us a total overview of all the Afghans here," he said.

Currently no reliable information exists on the status and number of Afghans living in Pakistan. Many Afghans in the country are not categorised as refugees as Pakistan plays host to hundreds of thousands of Afghan economic migrants, as well as those who fled more than two decades of conflict.

The preliminary phase of the census - identifying concentrations of Afghans outside refugee camps - is already under way across the country, "while the actual census would be carried out in the second half of February, which will be completed in approximately 10 days", a UNHCR spokesman, Jack Redden, told IRIN in the capital.

It will be mandatory for all Afghans to take part in the survey. "Any Afghan who doesn't participate and cannot provide a compelling explanation will be treated according to relevant Pakistani laws," said the UNHCR official. At least a million Afghan refugees still live in a series of camps, mainly
located in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The Pakistan Census Organisation (PCO) will conduct house-to-house counting of Afghans, employing 2,000 staff. Each male/female team will conduct interviews with all Afghans at each address. "The teams will visit every area - including the tribal areas," said the Pakistani minister for refugee affairs, Sardar Yar Muhammad Rind.

"Once the census is completed, after looking over the results, we will decide about the registration phase later in the year," Redden said. Only those included in the census will be eligible to take part in the proposed registration, he added.

The census will record the gender, ethnicity, address and source of livelihood of each Afghan recorded. It will also note when the individual arrived here and whether or not they intend to return to Afghanistan by the end of the voluntary repatriation programme.