PESHAWAR – The UNHCR has formally inaugurated its second Voluntary Repatriation Centre (VRC) at Azakhel in Nowshera district on Wednesday to facilitate safe and dignified return of Afghan refugees.
The opening of new centre would enable UNHCR to facilitate return of up to 10,000 refugees every day through Torkham border crossing.
In this connection, a high-level delegation including Dr Omar Zakhilwal, Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan, Jan Fury, Czech Ambassador, Jean-Francois Cautain, European Union Ambassador, Dr Brigitta Blaha, Austrian Ambassador, Ole Thonke, Danish Ambassador, Renate Theodora, Charge d’Affaires of the Netherlands, Olivier Rousselle, head of ECHO, and Representative of UNHCR to Pakistan Indrika Ratwatte, and Dr Imran Zeb Khan, Chief Commissioner Afghan Refugees in Islamabad attended the inauguration ceremony.
On this occasion, the UNHCR Representative in Pakistan, Indrika Ratwatte commended the government of Pakistan for extending the stay of Afghans refugee in Pakistan until 31 March 2017. Ratwatte said, “The extension is an important decision by the government of Pakistan which recognises the importance of policies to manage the legal stay of registered Afghans in Pakistan.”
Chief Commissioner for Afghan Refugees, Dr Imran Zeb Khan said, “The Government of Pakistan has ensured that the repatriation remains voluntary and that returns are conducted in safety and dignity.” Dr Zeb also acknowledged the commitment and ownership of Afghanistan to facilitate the repatriation of Afghans and the steps taken to enable their sustainable reintegration.
Welcoming the returnees to Afghanistan, Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan, Dr Omar Zakhilwal encouraged Afghan refugees to return to their homeland despite the challenges and to join the nation-building process.”
Zakhilwal also said, “The repatriation remains voluntary and the fact that Afghan refugees are returning of their free will demonstrates confidence in the efforts of the national unity government.”
He lauded the role of Pakistan for hosting Afghan refugees for decades and added the ongoing repatriation process of Afghan refugees would help in establishment of peace in Afghanistan.
The visiting delegation visited Chamkani in Peshawar and the newly operational Azakhel centres and met with elders of the Afghan Refugee Shura.
The repatriation centres in Azakhel and Chamkani are supported by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). UNHCR has acquired additional land for the increased numbers of vehicles onsite and has also established dedicated spaces for children in both locations.
Since 2002, UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation programme has helped nearly 3.9 million Afghans return home from Pakistan.
Around 167,228 registered Afghan refugees have returned home from Pakistan so far in 2016. UNHCR has now three voluntary repatriation centres operational in Chamkani and Azakhel in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baleli, Quetta in Balochistan.
Since July 2016 there has been an increase in the number of Afghans voluntarily repatriating to Afghanistan. There are a number of related factors which have led to this increase.
The spike in returns coincides with the introduction of tighter border management controls at the Torkham border between Pakistan and Afghanistan on 1st June. Afghans now need valid passports and visas in order to enter Pakistan. The increase in UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation and reintegration cash grant has significantly contributed to the increase in number of people opting to return.
The cash grant was doubled from $200 to $400 per individual in June, which is approximately $2,800 for a family of seven.
The Government of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation’s campaign launched in July 2016 in Pakistan to encourage Afghans to return home called Khpal Watan, Gul Watan (“My country, my beautiful country”) is also linked with an increase in the numbers of people opting to return home.
The wider security context has also contributed to an increase in the numbers of registered Afghan refugees opting to return since July. The increase in the number of security operations against undocumented foreigners, including undocumented Afghans, has also impacted refugees’ decision-making.
Pakistan remains the second largest refugee hosting country with some 1.4 million Afghans still residing in the country.
In addition to the registered Afghan refugee population, the government of Pakistan estimates that another 600,000 Afghans reside irregularly in the country.
On 9 September, Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif announced an extension of the stay of registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan until 31 March 2017.
This extension will bring much needed relief to Afghan refugees.