UN-assisted repatriation drive resumes for registered refugees only

The United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) has resumed its assisted repatriation drive for more than two million Afghans living in Pakistan, the agency said on Thursday.

“Under the new UNHCR-assisted repatriation phase, only those refugees that hold proof of registration as Afghans living in Pakistan will receive cash grants,” Salvatore Lombardo, UNHCR’s representative in Afghanistan, told IRIN.

According to a tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Afghan refugees will not be forced to leave Pakistan. However, they are required to register their presence in Pakistan and can choose to repatriate voluntarily.

In February 2007, the government of Pakistan embarked on a registration programme by which 2.2 million Afghans received Proof of Registration (PoR) documents that allow them to stay in the host country for the coming two years.

The refugee agency launched a grace period or assisted repatriation for unregistered refugees on 1 March that ended on 15 April. More than 200,000 Afghans, mostly unregistered, left Pakistan for Afghanistan in this period of time, a spokesman for the organisation said in Kabul.

Those who are registered and wish to return to their country, must de-register their PoR’s at UNHCR verification centres before receiving about US $100 upon their return to Afghanistan, the refugee body said.

“Unregistered Afghan refugees who want to return to their home country after 15 April will not receive cash assistance from UNHCR,” Lombardo said.

Now, those Afghans who are not registered but continue to live in Pakistan do so illegally. It is unclear how many there are of them. However, some unregistered refugees are demanding the UN continue to provide assistance for their repatriation.

“We spent 15 days visiting the [returning refugees’ verification] centre hoping that we will receive aid money to return home,” said unregistered Afghan refugee Mohammad Ali. “Now, they [UNHCR] say we are late and therefore will get nothing.”

Days in long queues

Another unregistered refugee, Hazrat Din, 42, whose seven-member family also spent days in long queues to receive cash grants, was also critical. “They [refugee verification centre staffs] are corrupt. Those who give them bribes receive cash tokens very easily,” he said.

Some refugees complain about the way UNHCR and Pakistani police treat them in returning refugee centres, a charge not entirely denied by the refugee agency.

“I do not totally reject the charges of corruption and ill-treatment that might have happened in a few cases,” said UNHCR’s country director in Afghanistan, explaining the difficulty of dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees.

According to UNHCR, some individuals complicated and caused delays in the six-week grace period by using various fraudulent means to receive cash grants more than once.

About 300,000 Afghan refugees are expected to voluntarily return from Pakistan in 2007, UNHCR said.

More than three million Afghans migrated to neighbouring Pakistan after their country was invaded by the former Soviet Union in 1979.

Many others migrated to Pakistan during the internecine fighting that took place after the Soviet forces’ withdrawal in 1989.

UNCHR has assisted 3.7 million Afghans in their return to their home country since 2002, the single largest operation of its kind in the organisation’s 55-year history. A further one million refugees have returned unassisted.

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see also
UN refugee agency faces deficit in Afghan repatriation funds
Surge of Afghans repatriating