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Speculators Want Land from Afghan Refugees In Pakistan

Afghan refugees evacuating a flood devastated area of Azakhel Camp near Nowshera, Pakistan, 16 Aug 2010

The U.N. refugee agency says speculators around Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkwa in northern Pakistan, are pressuring Afghan refugees in flood-affected areas to repatriate and not return to their dwellings and refugee villages after floodwaters recede.

The U.N. refugee agency says it is becoming increasingly alarmed by this attempted land grab. It says hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in Pakistan's northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkwa Province have been forced to flee their flooded settlements.

UNHCR Spokesman Adrian Edwards says speculators are pressuring some of these flood-affected Afghan refugees not to return to the land they fled. He says the speculators are urging the Afghans to repatriate so they can develop land around Peshawar that until now has been occupied by refugee settlements.

"Many of the Afghan refugee settlements in Pakistan were established more than 30 years ago after the Soviet invasion triggered the first wave of refugees across the border. At that time, the settlements that people fled to were often makeshift in remote areas and on the edges of cities," said Edwards. "Over time, these areas have become increasingly valuable along with cities that have grown around them."

Pakistan is hosting 1.7-million Afghan refugees. This is one of the world's largest refugee populations. More than 1.5 million of these refugees are living in flood-affected provinces.

The UNHCR says dozens of Afghan refugee villages have been damaged by the floods and several are completely destroyed. In Khyber Pakhtunkwa province alone, it reports more than 12,000 dwellings in refugee villages have been swept away, leaving almost 70,000 people homeless.

Edwards says the land speculators have no regard for the tragedy that is unfolding. What interests them is making a hefty profit by developing the valuable refugee settlements.

"This is a volatile situation. We need to make sure that people can move back as quickly as possible. We welcome the assurances that we have seen so far, but we need to see that those are fulfilled. I think we are going to have to watch this situation closely," he said. "We all know the kind of environment we are dealing with. It is a fast-moving environment, a difficult environment to enforce."

Edwards says the UNHCR has received assurances from federal authorities that all people affected by the floods should be able to return to their homes to rebuild. This includes Afghan refugees as well.

He says the Ministry of State and Frontier Regions and the Chief Commissioner for Afghan Refugees also have given assurances refugees have the right to return to their dwellings.

He says it is important to make sure the Afghan refugees who have been displaced by the floods have a home to return to. He says steps must be taken to make sure the moves by land speculators are stymied.