Pakistan this weekend is closing two camps for Afghan refugees. The U.N. refugee agency is urging the government of Pakistan to make sure the closure goes peacefully. Violent clashes occurred in mid-May when Pakistan tried to close another camp for Afghan refugees. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
The U.N. refugee agency says it does not want a replay of what happened in May, and it is calling for continued dialogue between the government and the refugees in the camps that are being closed.
U.N. refugee spokesman Ron Redmond tells VOA the camps host more than 82-thousand registered Afghans, most of whom are women, children and the elderly. "Overall, there has been a pretty good response from the Afghan community to the decision to consolidate camps in Pakistan. And a lot of the Afghans took the opportunity in advance of these camp closures to take advantage of various assistance programs being offered by UNHCR to actually go back to Afghanistan itself," he said.
Each Afghan refugee who decides to return home voluntarily with UNHCR assistance is given a cash grant of $100. The refugees also receive food, shelter materials and other items to help them get settled upon their return home.
The Pakistan government says it is closing the camps for security reasons. They are located along tribal areas in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, near the border with Afghanistan, an area where there are frequent clashes between Pakistan's military and militants.
Redmond says the UNHCR is closely monitoring the camp closures to make sure people are not forced back to Afghanistan against their will. The agency says the refugees have two options. Those wishing to return to Afghanistan can do so with UNHCR's help. And, those who are unable to return can choose to relocate to an existing camp in Pakistan designated by the government, which is in a more secure area.
Redmond said the refugees who decide to go home will not be returned to places in Afghanistan affected by conflict. "We do and have underlined our concerns about Afghanistan's deteriorating security situation and the limited absorption capacity of some areas of Afghanistan to accept people back in large numbers. And, we have discussed the implications of these problems with the Pakistanis as well as with the Afghans. And, we want to ensure that those who do go home are able to stay home," he said.
The UNHCR reports more than two million Afghan refugees are living temporarily in Pakistan. They have been given cards valid for three years. More than half of them live in urban areas.
Since the overthrow of the Taleban in 2002, the UNHCR has repatriated more than three million Afghans from Pakistan, making it one of the largest repatriation operations in the world.