Posts Tagged ‘UNHCR’

 

Despite assurances by security agencies, South Waziristan IDPs are reluctant to go back to their homes, fearing militants will strike back

By Zia Ur Rehman

The News

15 January 2010

Although the government claims military offensive against Taliban in South Waziristan has succeeded in securing the area, the displaced people are reluctant to go back to their homes, saying militants had only dispersed, not wiped out, during the operation.

South Waziristan, the restive tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, is considered traditional stronghold of militants not only belonging to defunct Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) but also to Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. Foreign affiliates such as groups of Uzbeks, Chechens and Tajiks are also there.

Four major military operations have been carried out in South Waziristan to clear the area from the Taliban militants since 2004. The most recent offensive — Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation) — was started in October last year, and is still going on. Around 400,000 local residents, largely belonging to Mehsud tribe, were displaced from the area due to this operation.

Government officials claim that the area is now completely cleared from militants and now they are sending displaced people back to their homes. But the locals are unwilling to return to their villages as they fear the militants are either hiding in mountains of the area or have escaped to adjacent tribal areas.

Most of the displaced Mehsuds, whom TNS spoke to, were not yet ready to return due to fear of security situation, damage to their houses, lack of livelihood opportunities, electricity, food and other facilities.

“It is very dangerous. If we go back to our homes, militants will be there because they are still alive and have just moved to neighbouring tribal areas,” says Munsif Mehsud, one of the displaced people who declined to go back. He had brought his extended family of 18 to Karachi and lives in a rented house in a slum near Super Highway. The displaced families said it was the fourth time they had been displaced from their homes due to operation against the militants.

“The government wants us to be taken back to our homes in military conveys. This will create security problems for us as the militants will link us with the government,” says Zafar Mehsud, another displaced person who lives in district Tank.

Three weeks ago, TTP’s militants kidnapped 23 tribesmen, who were members of a committee of displaced persons, for attending a function arranged on the occasion of December 7 visit of chief of army staff to Makeen and Ladha areas of South Waziristan.

“This is a warning to the tribal people not come to the area because we are still present in South Waziristan,” Azam Tariq, spokesperson for TTP, told the media recently, claiming that militants had seven Taliban courts functioning in the area, as well as 22 offices. Later, the militants freed the kidnapped tribesmen.

This kidnapping further threaten the government’s shaky attempts to persuade Mehsud tribesmen that the militants are defeated and that it is safe to go back to their homes in South Waziristan.

Maulana Saleh Shah, a senator from South Waziristan, when contacted by TNS, also admitted that the government had just cleared very few areas of South Waziristan which are near to FR Jandola. “Most of the area is still not declared clear from the militants by the security forces,” Shah says, adding that only the people hailing from some villages, including Chagmali and Kotkai, were returning.

According to Duniya Aslam Khan, a Public Information Assistant at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the government has declared 13 villages to be safe to return which are located in the lower parts of South Waziristan where weather is fairly mild in the winter. “Returning to their homes is a voluntary process and we can’t say how many people will return,” Khan says.

A local elder says that displaced Mehsuds will be watching the process of repatriation very carefully. “How the military handles and guard the first returnees will likely decide whether other people choose to go back to their homes.”

The military had declared victory over militants in South Waziristan in February last year but is since struggling to convince the refugees to go back to their homes. Experts opine that the unwillingness of displaced families to go back also highlights the difficulties the security forces face in maintaining security in the region months after they have declared victory.

A local Mehsud journalist, requesting anonymity, says the government was trying to form Mehsud lashkars (militias) or peace committee, like already formed in Bajaur and other tribal areas with support of the government. But elders of Dray Mehsud (three clans of Mehsud) were clearly refusing it from the beginning.

A few days ago, TTP spokesperson Tariq, while talking to the Associated Press, warned that his group will take severe actions against those who form such lashkars or peace committees to take on the militants.

The government has promised to give returnees a cash stipend, living essentials and assistance for rebuilding homes damaged or destroyed in the fighting, but the slow pace of compensation and reconstruction in Swat will not give Mehsud tribesmen much confidence on those claims.

“UNHCR is assisting with logistical arrangements (having set up transit centres, registration desks, hot meals, etc) and shelter support for those choosing to return as well providing transports to the returning families from Dera Ismail Khan and Tank districts to their villages in South Waziristan,” Khan says, adding that Fata Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) is giving Rs25,000 to each family.

Senator Shah also complained that the government had also not fulfilled the promises of giving compensation to those going back because all the houses and businesses were totally destroyed in the area.

Most of the Mehsud families said that with their home destroyed, they were ready to live in tents because of cold weather. It is pertinent to mention that unlike refugees hailing from other tribal areas who lived in tents in the camps, most members of the Mehsud tribe are staying with relatives or in rented houses in Dera Ismail Khan, Tank and Karachi.

“The government has offered compensation of just Rs25,000 per family for damage to their houses and other losses which is not sufficient,” says Sher Alam, a refugee living in Peshawar. Senator Shah says he has demanded the federal government to increase the relief amount to Rs100,000.

(The writer is a researcher who works on militancy, development and human rights.)

Afghan refugees choose to go home as the situation worsens in Pakistan

By Zia Ur Rehman

published in The News

 

 

“Pakistan had been a haven for war-affected Afghans for decades, but now Pakistan itself is facing the same problems of terrorism and militancy that Afghanistan has been suffering for the last three decades. We are going back to Afghanistan because Pakistan no longer offers jobs, security and peace of mind,” says Jahan Sher while returning to his home town Mazar-e-Sharif. The economy of Afghanistan has improved during the last four years, he boasts.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claims that more Afghan refugees have returned to their homeland from Pakistan this year than in the previous year. Increasing incidents of harassment and arrests by Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies following terrorist activities in the country, poor socio-economic conditions, floods in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and increase in forcible deportation are key factors compelling the refugees to go back, refugees’ leaders and rights activists believe.

Pakistan has been host to the world’s largest refugee population. Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion and during the rule of Taliban in the late 1990s.

Currently there are some 1.6 million registered Afghans in Pakistan, with 45 per cent residing in refugees camps and the rest scattered amongst the host communities. Last year, Pakistan and the UNHCR signed an agreement to extend the stay of Afghan refugees until the end of 2010. About 3.7 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan in the past 9 years, according to UNCHR.

“A total of 1,09,383 Afghans have gone back in March-October through the UNCHR’s return programme, while the number of refugees returning to Afghanistan in 2009 was 51,290,” said Duniya Aslam Khan, UNHCR Pakistan’s Assistant Public Officer. “The number of returnees this year has increased by 51 per cent when compared to the number of people that returned in 2009. Refugees registered in the country are receiving a better assistance, transport and reintegration package, including a grant of $100,” added Khan.

“Most of the returnees cited the difficult situation in Pakistan, worst economic factors and improvement in some provinces of Afghanistan as the important reasons for their decision to return,” said Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesperson in Kabul.

“After the continuing terrorist attacks on offices of Pakistan’s security agencies, the crackdown against Afghan refugees, both registered and unregistered, has been accelerated across the country. Thousands of refugees have been arrested and forcibly deported,” said Haji Sohrab, the representative of Afghan refugees appointed by Afghan Consulate in Karachi. “Many Afghan refugees who do not have Proof of Registration (PoR), a document given to these refugees jointly by the government of Pakistan and UNCHR, face strict action by the police,” informed Sohrab.

“Thousands of Afghans, especially students in religious seminaries, daily wage workers and scavengers, have been arrested under the Foreign Registration Act (FRA) during the last two years and deported to their homeland,” said Iqbal Shah Khattak, a law teacher at Urdu University, Karachi.

However, refugees complain that police and law enforcement authorities have time and again raided houses in the refugee camps and other areas and arrested even those community members who had PoR.

“Refugees lived without any legal document for 28 years, till the 2007 registration when they were provided the PoR cards. This gave rise to a lot of legal problems. They could be stopped, searched and arrested under the FRA,” said Khattak, who has worked extensively on refugee rights in Karachi. Afghans in Pakistan have been regularly complaining about harassment and detention at the hands of police, he added.

“The registration process is flawed, leaving many refugees unregistered. Hence, these refugees are vulnerable to harassment and possible deportation,” maintained Sohrab. “The registration process was also marred by problems like lack of guidance, transport, translators and female registration.”

Amid crackdown against illegal Afghan immigrants across the country, industries are now forced by the government not to hire foreign workers without documentary proof, thus adding to the employment problems of refugees.

Denying the reports of arresting refugees with PoR cards, police claim they are arresting only those Afghan immigrants who are living illegally and without documentary proof. “We arrest illegal Afghan immigrants under FRA as well as the refugees involved in crimes,” said police officials, requesting anonymity. Media reports suggest hundreds of Afghan refugees have been detained by police across the country as a pre-emptive security sweep ahead of Muharram.

Majority of refugees are returning to Afghanistan because of worst flooding in Pakistan. Twenty out of 29 refugee camps across the province were swept away by flooding, destroying thousands of homes and leaving about 85,500 refugees homeless. One of the worst hit refugee villages is Azakhel in Nowshera where 23,000 people lost homes.

“Our houses were completely destroyed by the floods and the government is not able to help us,” said Khan Muhammad, an Afghan refugee living in Azakhel camp. “We are planning to go back to Afghanistan where, at least, some of our residential problems would be solved.”

Instead of going back to their villages, most of the returning refugees are settling in cities where they could find jobs easily. “Due to the prevailing insurgency in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, thousands of Pakistani Pashtuns are coming to Afghanistan for jobs,” said Basir Ahmed Hotak, an Afghan journalist.

Majority of refugees hailing from worst-hit provinces of Afghanistan, where security situation is still critical, were reluctant to go back to their homeland. “Majority of those returning belong to northern provinces like Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat where the security situation is better,” informed Arshad Khan, a refugee from Helmand. “How can we return to places like Helmand and Kandahar where security situation is worst?”

UNHCR’s officials and refugee leaders confide to TNS that a large number of repatriated refugees are coming back to Pakistan after taking money from UNHCR. “Going back to Afghanistan was a mistake as the security and economic situation is not good in Afghanistan,” said Hafeez Shah, who recently returned to Karachi from Afghanistan.

Some of the returning refugees complain that there is no shelter, electricity, schools, hospitals and employment opportunities in Afghanistan which compelled them to come back to Pakistan.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), in its report tilted ‘Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Push Comes to Shove’ expressed concerns over closure of refugees camps and intimidation of refugees at the hand of police.

But Najamuddin Khan, Federal Minister for SAFRON (Ministry of State and Frontier Region) said their repatriation was completely on voluntary basis and the government wants their respectful return. The ministry had suggested to UNHCR to give $5000 to each Afghan family returning to Afghanistan for shelter and livelihood there.

(The writer is an independent journalist and researcher and works on human rights, conflict and development. Email: zia_red@hotmail.com)