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UN repatriation centre struggling to handle Afghan refugees

Afghan women and children wait for verification of documents at the UN repatriation centre in Chamkani, Peshawar, on Friday. — White Star
Afghan women and children wait for verification of documents at the UN repatriation centre in Chamkani, Peshawar, on Friday. — White Star

PESHAWAR: The United Nations Voluntary Repatriation Centre (VRC) in Peshawar is unable to cope with the unexpected surge in the number of repatriating Afghan refugees, who traveled from Punjab and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but got stuck for days due to the slow verification process.

Flocks of refugees have been approaching small verification centre for the last few weeks. They are coming in from far-flung areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Islamabad. The only VRC in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which also caters to refugees from other parts of the country, could not absorb pressure.

The UN agency is supposed to repatriate 1.5 million registered refugees to Afghanistan by the end of December. The agency has only two VRCs, one in Peshawar and second in Balochistan. Officials admitted that they did not anticipate it. Refugees want speedy verification process.

Slow verification and poor facilities regretted

A grim situation outside the VRC compound at a congested locality in Chamkani has put life of hundreds of minors and other vulnerable groups at risk. The waiting area is unhygienic. Aged refugees, many of them suffering from contagious diseases like tuberculosis, lie under the loaded trucks parked along the road.

Women clad in ‘shuttlecock burqa’ holding their minor babies close to their chests in the scorching heat feel the worst but they’re unable to speak about their agony. The UN agency or the government (both federal and provincial) hasn’t bothered to provide separate waiting or resting area for such lactating women.

“We don’t demand water, food or anything else. Just protect our honour by providing separate place for women and send us back with dignity. Our children will die if they stay here for two or three days,” said Mohammad Alam, who became tearful while narrating plight of women and children waiting outside the center.

“Who should we approach? We’ve never seen anyone here from the UNHCR, Afghan consulate or Afghan commissionerate body to listen to our complaints,” said Alam, who is returning to Afghanistan to end the life of refuge. He migrated along with his parents about three decades ago.

Vendors have set up makeshift food stalls along stagnant water, a breeding place for mosquitoes, in front of the VRC from where departing Afghans buy food items.

“Our children have fallen ill after taking rotten food from these stalls,” said Abdul Khaliq, who belongs to Afghanistan’s Baghlan province.

He came along with women and children from Chakwal (Punjab) five days ago but is unsure about how many days he will wait at the centre for verification.

There is not a single washing facility, potable water or emergency health delivery system for the departing refugees outside the compound which is being operated United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partners. Refugees sleep under the open sky without sheds.

The slow verification processes, which irritated returnees, has caused one-kilometer long queue of trucks loaded with household items. The centre has small parking space, where roughly 150 heavy or mini trucks can be parked.

The UN staff members allow only those refugees, who have valid Proof of Registration Cards, to enter the centre.

The refugees depart for their country once the UN staff members scan their eyes through Iris to confirm their identities and verify their PoR cards. This is mandatory for registered refugees otherwise they won’t be eligible for receiving $400 cash assistance from the UN agency.

Security arrangements outside the compound are not very satisfactory. Only nine constables have been deployed there. They don’t have security devices to check people approaching or leaving the centre.

The refugees are under pressure to go back to their homeland. The Pakistani government has fixed Dec 31, 2016, as the last date for them to return. The UNHCR has increased the repatriation package from $200 to $400 each to motivate refugees to repatriate under the voluntary repatriation programme.

An official dealing with the refugees admitted that no organisation had anticipated that such a large number of refugees would opt for repatriation.

He said various partners were working out modalities to handle the crowd in coming days.

The UNHCR is in consultation with its partners to manage the situation.

The agency’s spokesperson, Dunya Aslam Khan, told Dawn that there were challenges at the Peshawar centre but the staff was working to address them.

“We are extending the working days and hours of our centre to cope with the increasing number of Afghans, who are returning,” she said.

The spokesperson said various options were under consideration to facilitate the returning refugees and that departing Afghans should contact the VRC to avoid inconvenience at the centre.

She said the UN was in contact with other partners to provide more facilities to refugees waiting outside the VRC. -DN


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