Safiullah Gul: Jalozai Refugee Camp closed as last inmates leave

The makeshift Afghan refugee camp at Jalozai, in the northwestern frontier province of Pakistan, frequently described as a humanitarian nightmare, was finally closed officially on Tuesday after a final convoy carrying some 1,500 refugees left for three newly established camps in the federally administered tribal areas.

The Jalozai camp, which was established in November 2000, housed over 100,000 refugees fleeing the war-ravaged country to avoid the civil war and drought that haunted the country for years. Later about half of the newly arrived refugees were shifted to the New Shamshatoo camp while the rest remained in the Jalozai camp. The repatriation of remaining 45,000 refugees to the newly established eight camps in tribal belt comprising eight agencies, where the British colonial rule's legacy "Frontier Crimes Regulation" and known as the "Draconian Law" for its human rights abuse was still intact, started from November 19, 2001, and was completed on Tuesday (February 12, 2001) when about 1,500 refugees were transferred to three camps in Bar Killi (Bajaur Agency), Shalman (Khyber Agency) and Asgharo (Kurram Agency), bordering the durand line, which separates Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The camp began attracting the world attention in November 2000, when thousands of Afghan refugees started pouring into it to escape drought and protracted civil war in Afghanistan. However, the camp, located about 39 kilometres east of Peshawar, offered few facilities to refugees, whose numbers swelled to over 100,000 last year. The camp became a precarious home to tens of thousands of Afghans who constructed crude shelters of plastic, canvas and other scraps in bottomland that often flooded in case of downpours and provided little shelter from subfreezing temperatures during winter and stifling heat in summer.

The government of Pakistan, which had already been hosting more than 2 million Afghan refugees, largely forgotten by the international community since the last two decades, was initially reluctant to officially recognise the new arrivals.

After months of intense lobbying by the UN refugee body, the Pakistani government last year agreed to shift Jalozai refugees to other new camps set up near its border with Afghanistan.

Relief agencies were also unable to register Afghans at the spontaneous, ramshackle site and many refugees, particularly children, died while aid workers struggled to provide minimum services.

UNHCR, World Food Programme, Shelter Now International, International Rescue Committee, Medecins Sans Frontiers, other agencies and many private donors provided some assistance. But, Jalozai's poor location and haphazard layout did not help the refugees.

A year ago, the UNHCR was permitted to transfer some 60,000 people from Jalozai to the nearby New Shamshatoo camp. But, thousands more desperate Afghans again flocked to Jalozai and the site filled up yet again.

After the September 11 attacks on the US and subsequent fears of the US attack on Afghanistan, some 250,000 new Afghan refugees arrived in Pakistan, which once again focused international attention on assistance programmes.

The UNHCR also received approval from the government to establish new refugee camps in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, making possible the relocation operation that finally allowed Tuesday's closure of the makeshift Jalozai site.

"The refugees of Jalozai were tragic proof of the world's neglect of the Afghan refugee problem prior to September 11," said UNHCR deputy representative Eva Demant.

The UNHCR deputy representative said they felt happy over the shifting of refugees to better and proper camps and closing the camp because the people were living in miserable conditions there. She said home was better than proper camps and the present development was a step towards the repatriation of Afghans to their homeland. The 14 new camps and one transit centre built since September 11 in NWFP and Balochistan provinces currently hold some 189,000 "new" Afghan refugees, including those transferred from Jalozai.

Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees (CARs) Sahibzada Anis while talking to newsmen on the occasion said UNHCR and CARs are considering a plan to repatriate 0.4 million Afghan refugees. The plan to be launched from March 1 will continue till the end of the current calendar year.

Anis said that those Afghan refugees who wanted to go back to their homeland would be extended all available facilities. He said according to the package the intending family would be provided Rs. 6,000 in cash, three bags of flour and tent.

Anis admitted that the rate of repatriation was not encouraging, saying that insecurity and harsh weather were hampering the process. However, he said, with the improvement in the security inside Afghanistan and better weather conditions would ultimately help in accelerating the repatriation process.

Safiullah Gul for PRAVDA.Ru

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