Stateless in Pakistan (THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA)
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - In the war on terror, most of the media attention is paid to military operations in Afghanistan. But there's an equally important upheaval going on just over the border, in Pakistan's bulging refugee camps.
Since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Afghans have fled to safety in their nearby neighbors; later waves were escaping the Taliban rule and then the U.S.-led invasion. Today, the two million Afghans in Pakistan, together with the one million in Iran, constitute the world's largest refugee population.
The refugees here are now being "encouraged" to go home because Islamabad considers the frontier region too volatile to house so many temporary visitors with no legal status and complicated tribal or ethnic cross-border loyalties. Pakistan also figures that Afghanistan's democratically elected government has some formal obligation to reabsorb its citizens.
The tripartite agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as revised in 2006 foresees the closure this year of three camps: two in Baluchistan province and one here in the Northwest Frontier province. This third camp, situated 35 kilometers east of Peshawar, Jalozai, the largest Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan, must be closed by tomorrow. No refugee registration card here is valid beyond the end of 2009.
Simply announcing the closure of camps like Jalozai won't force many Afghans to go home. Jalozai, where my organization conducted education programs for girls, is not really a camp but a village of mud-plastered houses, with markets, schools, clinics and more. It is currently home to some 50,000 Afghans, over half of whom are Pakistan-born.
On a recent visit to Jalozai, I saw no sign of a mass departure. With postwinter deregistrations restarted on March 2, only 662 families from Jalozai repatriated with UNHCR assistance. It's not hard to see why many want to stay: Departees receive only a $100 grant for travel and settlement. That's not sufficient to start an entirely new life, with generally no shelter, little infrastructure, and Ð in many parts of Afghanistan Ð no security. Resettlement to a third country is also difficult, mostly because Afghans in Pakistan are competing with newer, more urgent cases Ð especially from Iraq.
Voluntary repatriation is the best, and safest, option. Since 2002, nearly 3.2 million Afghans in Pakistan have gone home willingly. But parts of Afghanistan still aren't ready to absorb returnees Ð especially those long absent, and in such big numbers. Pakistan isn't a signatory to the U.N. convention on refugees and thus doesn't offer local integration. Although many refugees have resided here for almost 30 years, they have no work permits and cannot become Pakistani citizens or even permanent residents. The temporary locations that Pakistan proposes to Jalozai residents are arid, distant and unattractive to the Afghans.
As Pakistan closes these camps, the most worrying Ð and likely Ð scenario is a dangerous illegal limbo. "We are concerned that due to insecurity in some Afghan provinces returnees may travel there but slip back into Pakistan though this time as illegal economic migrants, being more of a problem for the local authorities" says Luc Brandt, UNHCR's senior protection officer in Peshawar. Afghans who thus "recycle themselves" could potentially add to regional instability.
UNHCR is offering respite through an initiative called Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas. If adequately funded, the program will upgrade facilities in refugee-hosting areas to benefit Afghan and Pakistani communities. But it will not be enough. It's time for the new government in Islamabad to work with Kabul on finding a durable solution.
Ms. Husarska is senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee.