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Pakistan: Officials Moving Toward Afghan Refugee Deportations (Part 1)

Pakistan said this month it will begin screening for deportation tens of thousands of Afghans who have taken shelter inside the country. The screening is meant to separate asylum-seekers from what Pakistan says are mostly economic migrants. The Pakistani announcement coincides with a UN statement issued yesterday that says Afghan refugees are facing an increasingly hostile reception worldwide. In the first of a two-part series on Afghan refugees, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the impact of the Pakistani decision.

Prague, 12 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan's decision to begin screening -- and most likely deporting -- tens of thousands of Afghans who do not qualify for refugee status comes as a timely illustration of what the UN says is a worsening situation for Afghan refugees worldwide.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, issued a statement in Geneva yesterday (11 July) saying that "overall the picture concerning Afghans, the single biggest group of refugees in the world at four million or more, is about as grim as it can get."

UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville told a press briefing that there is a growing "lack of hospitality, and in some cases downright hostility" to Afghan refugees not only in the region near Afghanistan but throughout the world.

Colville says last year some 34,000 Afghans arrived in Europe -- almost twice the number two years ago. But he says the asylum-seekers face an "ever-growing barricade of exclusionary measures." In some cases, they have been "slapped straight into detention," and in others "simply folded into a wider group" of migrants considered to be economically motivated.

The UNHCR also says hundreds of thousands of Afghans last year fled into Iran and Pakistan due to fighting and a continuing drought, now in its third year. At the same time, about a half million people have been internally displaced inside Afghanistan.

But thousands of Afghans have been deported this year from Iran, where a new law forbids employers from using foreign labor. In addition, the UNHCR says, all six countries bordering Afghanistan -- Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and China -- have closed their borders to new Afghan arrivals.

Earlier this week, Islamabad's decision to begin screening Afghans gave a clear example of how precarious the refugees' situation has become.

Islamabad announced Saturday (7 July) it intends to clear more than 60,000 refugees from a longstanding camp known as Nasir Bagh on the outskirts of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. Many of the refugees have lived in the camp since the early 1980s, after fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing war.

Abbas Sarfaraz Khan, Pakistan's minister responsible for refugee camps, said there would be a three-month screening program to determine which residents qualify for asylum and which should be deported. The Nasir Bagh site, once cleared, is to be used to build housing for civil servants.

RFE/RL telephoned a UNHCR regional spokesman in Islamabad, Peter Kessler, to learn more about the screening program. Kessler said the Pakistani government plans to carry out the screening in cooperation with the UNHCR first at the Nasir Bagh site and later at Jalozai, an officially unrecognized encampment of newly arrived refugees also near Peshawar. Kessler:

"Under the proposed screening program, joint UNHCR and Pakistani government teams would do [the] screening. People who would be screened and who then would be considered refugees and would be able to stay on in Pakistan would go to refugee camps. Those Afghans who would not be considered to need the shelter and protection of remaining in Pakistan could be deported by the government."

Kessler estimates that a total of some 100,000 people live at the two sites. Initially they held many more but in past months thousands of residents have slipped out to seek shelter in other refugee camps or in Afghan-populated neighborhoods in Peshawar.

The UNHCR spokesman told our correspondent that the agency welcomes Pakistan's decision to begin screening. The reason is that until now the government has refused to acknowledge as refugees any of the some 200,000 Afghans who have arrived in the country since September, when Pakistan closed its border to new arrivals. Along with that refusal, Pakistan barred international agencies from providing relief services to the newcomers, which it says are mostly economic migrants. The lack of assistance has led to the deaths of at least a dozen children and elderly at Jalozai due to unsanitary conditions that are easily preventable.

But while relief workers welcome the screening to identify at least some of the new arrivals as refugees and make them eligible for assistance, there is concern that genuine refugees now also risk being deported in the process. The possibility for misunderstanding is particularly high for refugees who say they are seeking asylum from the Taliban, which rules 95 percent of Afghanistan. Pakistan views the Taliban as the legitimate government of the country and rejects the view of the UN and other international organizations that the fundamentalist militia is a serious abuser of human and women's rights. Kessler says:

"We don't want to see, and the [proposed joint UNHCR-Pakistani screening] agreement states, that [forced] inhumane movements will not take place."

Those Afghans whom the screening determines do not qualify for political asylum will be deported by the Pakistani government outside of the UNHCR's own repatriation program. The UNHCR program, available to Afghans with refugee status who voluntarily go home, provides each returning family with the equivalent of $90, materials for shelter, and 150 kilograms of food aid. Last year, the UNHCR program assisted some 77,000 people in returning home. Pakistan has not announced that it would provide deportees with repatriation assistance.

Kessler says that many Afghans who fear they do not qualify for refugee status are likely to disappear into the Afghan neighborhoods of Peshawar to avoid deportation. He says it is unclear how the government will regard those people, but in the initial phase, at least, it may simply ignore them.

"Afghans [who don't qualify as refugees] would have an option, at least in the initial stages, of being trucked back to Afghanistan or of going to sites elsewhere in the country where they wouldn't get refugee assistance but might be able to stay on here in Pakistan. It is not necessarily very concrete and clear, but many Afghans are moving into local Afghan neighborhoods on the outskirts of Peshawar and that will probably be the case for many people."

It is unclear whether Pakistan will continue the screening beyond the two camps it has announced. If screening does continue, it also is unclear whether it would extend only to the some 200,000 new arrivals or extend retroactively to others who came into the country before the border was closed.

Pakistani officials have long complained about the presence of some two million Afghans on Pakistani soil. They say their country cannot afford to accommodate so many foreigners -- even those recognized as refugees -- without substantially more financial help from the international community.

Most of the refugees are from among the more than three million Afghans who fled to Pakistan during the decade-long Soviet-Afghan war. Pakistan once received generous international assistance for the refugees, but that has shrunk dramatically since the end of the Cold War -- dropping from some $80 million 15 years ago to some $12 million today.

UN refugee officials have repeatedly called on donor countries to make more money available, particularly for assistance inside Afghanistan to accommodate the newest waves of displaced people and keep them from seeking refuge abroad. But so far donor response has been disappointing.

The UN last month issued a special alert to donor countries calling for additional emergency food aid for Afghanistan. A mission from the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) which recently visited Afghanistan estimated that the country this year faces a grain shortfall of one million tons beyond its own food resources and currently pledged food aid.

The UN has warned that, as drought and fighting in the country continue. the number of internally displaced people in Afghanistan could grow to one million by the end of this winter.

(Part 2 looks at reports from human rights groups that Afghan refugees in Pakistan are frequently targeted by police seeking bribes as the price for not deporting them.)