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UN Says Increasing Numbers Of Afghan Refugees in Pakistan - 2001-08-15

The UN refugee agency and Pakistan are jointly conducting the screening process, which is expected to last at least three months. UNHCR spokesman, Peter Kessler, says interest in this first phase of the process is exceeding expectations.

"Since the registration operation began a week ago, we had well over 5,000 Afghan families, that is thousands and thousands of people, coming forward asking to be registered, saying they do want to be considered for asylum in Pakistan and saying that as soon as the actual screening begins, they want to be at the top of the list," he said.

The actual screening process will begin within the next couple of weeks. Afghans who have fled to Pakistan to escape drought and war in their country will be interviewed to determine their status.Pakistan, which hosts about two million Afghans, claims many of these people are economic migrants and should be sent home.

Mr. Kessler says the screening process will distinguish between those who are genuine refugees in need of protection and those who have come to Pakistan seeking work. He says the screening program is for the benefit of the Afghans.

"The Pakistan authorities have deported thousands of people, at least 3,500 in the first six months of this year. Neighboring Iran itself has deported well over 85,000 Afghans in the first half of this year." he said. " These have been carried out in a cursory way and what UNHCR would like to do is ensure that Afghans who think they should benefit from the protection afforded by staying in Pakistan or Iran for that matter, that they should have access to that right like any other asylum seeker in the world."

Afghans who are found to be in need of protection will be allowed to stay temporarily in Pakistan. They will be moved from the squalid makeshift camp at Jalozai and from another, long-established camp at Nasir Bagh to a new camp where they will receive assistance.

Those whose cases have been rejected will be able to appeal. But, once a final decision is made, they will have to return home. Mr. Kessler says more than 500 families have decided to return home voluntarily. He says they will be given an assistance package of money and wheat.