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Millions of Afghan Refugees in Pakistan May Be Finally Going Home - 2002-01-25

For more than two decades, Pakistan has been home for millions of Afghan refugees. But with possible peace on the horizon, the end of that crisis may be in sight.

Nuriyah, 32, and her four children fled their home in the southern Afghan province, Hilmand. Her story is typical of those of the 60,000 people living in the somewhat infamous camp, Jalozai, near Peshawar.

"In the area where we were living, Taleban came and destroyed our houses and there was serious fighting, so we decided to go to Panjshir [region]. In that place there was also fighting, so we were obliged to come here," she said.

Consisting of little more than rows of tents on a dusty field off the highway, it was Jalozai more than any other refugee camp that mirrored the ever-shifting relationship between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United Nations.

To U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees aid-workers like Melita Sunjic, its name resonates with history. "Jalozai has a special history because up to November 2000, Pakistan was very welcoming to refugees," she said. "Any Afghan refugees who came in would be accepted. They could come and stay."

But in November 2000, Pakistan changed its official policy. As one of the only countries in the world to formally recognize the Taleban government, it decided that there was no longer a reason for refugees to flee Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials maintained that the Islamabad government was already burdened with caring for more than two million Afghans living in camps and cities around the country.

But that policy did not reflect reality for many Afghans. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes in the face of war and the worst drought in memory.

With nowhere else to go, a large number of these refugees ended up in camps like Jalozai. And that sparked a diplomatic test of wills.

Ms. Sunjic says aid workers were prohibited from visiting the camp for months. "But the Pakistan government would not... allow us to mount any relief operation to have these people registered to get them to other places," she said. "So basically what they did, they just gathered there, living out in the open. It was even called a 'death camp.' It was the best-covered makeshift camp in the media ever, because it was just indescribable what was there."

With aid-agencies forbidden to assist the refugees, a significant number of children died as a result of living in the freezing and squalid shelters. According to aid workers, the conditions in Jalozai were simply not fit for human habitation.

Residents of the camp, like Mohammed Khan, say they had nowhere else to go because the Pakistani government prohibited them from traveling freely. "Before Taliban was doing injustice to us, and coming here the Pakistan government does injustice to us," he said. "Police officers were capturing us, teasing us, harming us, hitting us, so it is been difficult for us here."

It was only in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States that the refugees' fate dramatically improved. Pakistan is now allowing the UNHCR to relocate the Jalozai residents to other more livable camps in Pakistan. From there, they will decide whether or not to return to Afghanistan.

Aid-workers say the infamous camp at Jalozai could be emptied in just a few months.

Ms. Nuriyah says she and her family will return as soon as there is a sign that there is peace in Afghanistan. "We would be so happy if there is peace that we would go by foot," she said. "We do not need any cars or bus to carry us there, we will just go by foot."

While Jalozai will be closing, it will not mean the end of the refugee crisis in Pakistan. More than two million Afghans are living in other camps, many unsure of when, or if, they will return to Afghanistan.