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Many Afghan Refugees Do Not Want to Go Home - 2002-11-04

The United Nations is continuing its intensive effort to repatriate Afghans who fled decades of war. Since March, 1.7 million Afghans have returned. But many more remain in exile, including 1.5 million in neighboring Pakistan alone, many of whom do not want to go home for economic and security reasons.

Most of the Afghan refugees still in Pakistan have lived here for almost two decades and now think of it as home. Some 80,000 have illegally settled in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. They are mostly educated, well-off and liberal-minded.

In a congested, poor neighborhood of the Pakistani capital, the Afghans run many types of businesses. There are locals who own shops in the market, but most of the occupants are Afghans. This part of the city is known as "Peshawar Moar" and resembles the famous "Chicken Street" of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The market offers everything that smacks of Afghanistan bakeries, tailors and jewelry shops as well as the signboards. Young men and women stroll by as Afghan songs blast from shops. Mohammad Saeed, from northern Afghanistan, owns a music store here. He says he wants to go back, but it is not safe enough yet. "There are a lot of problems right now in Afghanistan. We cannot go over there because for example, Ismail Khan, General Dostum and other people, Atta Mohammad, they are always fighting with each other."

Afghan warlord Ismail Khan governs Western Herat Province and General Dostum controls northern parts of Afghanistan. Armed clashes between fighters of rival groups in these areas and other parts of Afghanistan have become a routine.

Sixty-year old Begum Parveen, speaking through a translator, says that her nine-member family is well settled in Islamabad and they don't want to leave for economic reasons. "I do not want to go back because we do not have house to live and we cannot find jobs there in Kabul. Now I have a job here. I am working in a factory and my life is better here," she says.

Marjan Bibi, 56 years old, moved to Islamabad four years ago after living in a camp in the border town of Peshawar. She has similar concerns. "There is hardly anything to eat in Kabul," she says. "Here [I] can get at least some bread and have some work."

Maryam Raavi, an Afghan human rights activist in Pakistan, says the refugees have good reasons for not wanting to go home. "The main reason that they do not want to go is that there is no security and safe life for them. The people who are running [the government] are the same," she says. "The military commanders are still in power in different areas of Afghanistan, the warlords. All of the them together makes the life of the people, especially women and children unsafe. And that's why they never want to leave [Pakistan]."

Ms. Raavi says that some refugees did return home briefly only to make their way back to Pakistan. "Most of the women told me that they went and they returned back to Pakistan because there's no life, there's no job, there's no security. And most of the schools are active only in Kabul. But in other areas they can't get education," she says. "In Kabul there are foreign security guards, which gives a bit of security for people. But in other areas, situation is still the same."

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) notes the approaching winter is slowing down the repatriation effort. U.N. spokesman, Jack Redden, says there are other problems as well. "Certainly security is a concern to people. There are some areas in the north especially where [security] was a factor," he says. "But that does seem to be easing now. There are also, of course, problems in southern Afghanistan, which is still suffering from drought for the fourth straight year now. And so it's very difficult to return to the south because farming has just been wiped out in much of the area."

Afghan authorities dismiss security concerns. But they do acknowledge health and economic problems are discouraging the returnees. Rahmatullah Musaghazi, the top diplomat at the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad, says his country needs more international funds to rebuild. "The world community is not honoring their pledges. At least the government of Afghanistan must be provided some funds to do the very basic and important tasks, to provide some jobs for the refugees and shelter, and the education is very important for everybody specially for Afghans who have been deprived of these facilities for 23 years," he says.

Mr. Redden of the U.N. refugee agency says that even after peace is established all over Afghanistan, it will not be easy for the well-settled Afghan refugees to wind up their businesses and return to Afghanistan. "At the moment the country is very slowly re-building. It's going to take years, I mean after 20 years of destruction, nobody is going to be able move back quickly and establish the same kind of facilities that they had here probably," he says. "People who have really developed businesses here, factories and so on, you just can't re-establish this overnight in Afghanistan."

For next year, the United NationS plans to rehabilitate some 600,000 Afghan refugees. But Mr. Redden says that is really going to be dictated by economic circumstances inside Afghanistan.