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by Ilyas Wahdat and Janullah Hashimzada

Afghanistan's Coming Humanitarian Disaster (2001)

(IPS) -- Freezing cold weather has worsened the plight of thousands of Afghans living in makeshift camps since their return from refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

A child, a woman and an elderly man froze to death in a camp in the southeastern Paktia province last week, said refugee representative Murad Khan.

Also last week, 500 families living in tents in the 203 Military Corps area south of the city were moved into school buildings in Logar and Gardez after the governor, Hakim Taniwal, assured them they would be allotted plots in the spring.

"The governor has signed an agreement with U.S. -- if he fails to keep his promise, we will kick up a storm of protests for our rights," warned Din Mohammad, another refugee representative.

On Jan 2, the Paktia governor chaired an emergency meeting to discuss the refugee crisis. Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Rescue Committee (IRC) and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were present.

The UNHCR's officials in Pakistan had assured Afghan refugees they would be given plots if they returned home.

Refugees are living in tents in sub-zero temperatures, even in the Afghan capital Kabul. On Dec. 7, the Ministry for Refugee Affairs had distributed 720 blankets among 240 families that had recently returned from Pakistan and were housed in the city's eighth and ninth districts.

About 200 other families who were in tents and mud houses have been shifted to rented houses in the Sia Sang area, east of Kabul. According to refugee Abdul Waris Safi, this was the first time they had received humanitarian aid from the Afghan government.

Afghanistan's Minister for Refugees Affairs Mohammad Azam Dadfar has also distributed warm clothes and blankets to 390 refugee families in the Childokhtaran area.

Last month, he announced that townships had been constructed in 25 provinces for returning refugees. He later clarified that the government was committed to covering all 34 provinces, but it would depend on the availability of funds.

A foundation stone was laid for a new township spread over 509 acres in Gardez that will provide housing to 2,500 families. Large numbers of refugees have returned to the province.

Paktia governor Taniwal expects that many more will come back in the next few years. The government will have to build many more small townships to accommodate everyone, he warns.

But a parliamentary member from Paktia, Gul Bacha, says that the problems of the Afghan refugees are manifold and distribution of land alone will not solve all their difficulties.

Syed Agha, a representative of refugees, says people have spent huge amounts constructing houses in the refugee camps; they have no money to build on the newly allotted lands.

Pakistani authorities have been cracking down on Afghan refugees. Refugees living in the border North Waziristan Agency, for example, were given 24 hours to return home in early December.

An official census conducted last year showed that at least 3 million Afghan refugees continued to live in Pakistan, while there were another 900,000 in Iran.

According to Zaheerul Islam, North Waziristan Agency political agent, some refugees repatriated to Afghanistan by the UNHCR went back to the federally administered tribal area in Pakistan. He blamed them for the worsening security situation in the area.

On Tuesday, officials in Islamabad said seven Pakistan troops were killed after militants fired rockets at paramilitary post in North Waziristan, where many al Qaeda members are believed to have taken refuge after the ouster of the Taliban government by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

According to UNHCR spokesman in Islamabad, Asif Shahzad, refugees who voluntarily returned could not re-enter Pakistan under the three-way agreement among Kabul, Islamabad and the UNHCR. But neither could they be forcibly sent back to their home country, he said.

"Those who don't want to return home can shift to any other refugee camp inside Pakistan," he said.

Allah Dad, a refugee shopkeeper in Miranshah, wanted more time to try to sell his shop. "Over the last three months, I have been trying to dispose (of it). Unfortunately, the locals have been offering me a ridiculously low price as if my shop is a stolen property," he said.

UNHCR's refugee repatriation program is suspended for the winter. Refugees who want to return will not receive any financial assistance from Dec. 20 to March 1, spokesman Shahzad said.

In December, Pakistan's oldest Afghan refugee camp, Jalozai in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), sheltering about 108,000 refugees, was shut down after drawn-out negotiations involving Pakistani officials, the Afghan government and UNHCR.

Babar Baluch, UNHCR spokesman, told Pajhwok Afghan News: "Large numbers of Afghans will return to Kabul. However, UNHCR will assist refugees if they want to shift to any other camp in Pakistan, but with permission of the host officials."

Refugee leaders in NWFP have appealed to Afghanistan's new parliamentarians to take immediate steps to solve people's problems. "If security was restored in Kabul we will not stay in Pakistan for a while (even)," Ahmadzai Malik Janan Ahmadzai, a well-known leader, said.

Violent crimes against Afghan refugees have been on the rise. In Peshawar, armed men, suspected to be robbers, shot a young refugee shopkeeper dead in his stall on Jan. 7. Hours before an Afghan taxi driver was injured after unidentified armed men opened fire on him.

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Albion Monitor   January 26, 2006   (

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