"We are waiting for things to get clearer and
then we will decide. Otherwise we are quite comfortable in
Chagai camp is one of four refugee settlements in the
remote Dalbandin area, a thinly-populated region of bare sand and
blackened rock south of Afghanistan in the part of Pakistan that extends
to meet Iran.
The camps, which also include Lejay Karez, Posti and
Girdi Jungle, hold nearly 66,000 refugees. Unlike some camps in Pakistan
that draw outside visitors, these refugees are seen by few outside of
the UNHCR field office in the town of Dalbandin and the agency's
implementing partners providing health and educational support.
In winter, a bitter wind whips across the desert
sands, which merge into the Dasht al Margo — the Desert of Death —
of southern Afghanistan. In summer, the temperatures at the UNHCR office
reached 54° Celsius this year.
Just as the terrain of Pakistan and Afghanistan is
almost indistinguishable, so is the population. In Chagai camp, the
13,678 refugees have reportedly been joined by thousands of people with
Pakistani citizenship. Girdi Jungle, with 34,000 refugees, is the
largest community in the region.
Three of the refugee camps lie along a newly paved
road to the administrative centre of Dalbandin. The road curves through
the desert near the edge of Pakistani territory, but only a dirt track
leads off past a Frontier Constabulary post toward the unmarked Afghan
Most of the refugees, many in Pakistan for almost a
quarter century, come from the nearby provinces of Afghanistan,
especially Helmand where one of Afghanistan's few rivers makes
Some do express interest in returning. One elder said
he represented 150 families who want assistance to return over the
nearby border to Afghanistan, instead of going via the distant UNHCR
verification office in Quetta.
Arranging a crossing of the normally closed border
would not be difficult, but there are questions about ownership of the
land they want to return to in Helmand, one of the property disputes
that are among the most intractable problems in Afghanistan.
But, with continuing security problems in southern
Afghanistan and only one year of good rain after years of drought, most
refugees around Dalbandin appear to have little interest in returning
before UNHCR's three-year voluntary repatriation programme ends.
Under the agreement signed by Afghanistan, Pakistan
and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency is willing to screen remaining Afghans
to see who needs the protection of official refugee status. What happens
to the rest will be the subject of debate over the next two years.
"My appeal would be, 'don't just forget us after
2005,' because the problem would still be alive, and we will have a huge
burden on our economy," Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, Pakistan's
minister responsible for refugees, told the annual meeting of UNHCR's
Executive Committee in Geneva last week.
In Leejay Karez camp, the leader of the 4,841-strong
community, Haji Aurang Noorzai, expressed doubts about most aspects of
Afghanistan's recovery from 25 years of war.
In contrast, he said in his carpet-lined meeting
room, his people enjoy both security and employment by living on the
Pakistani side of the border. The refugees have even built their own
"Return to Afghanistan by 2005?" responded
the village elder when asked if his people would repatriate. "We
will not return there even in the next 2,000 years if we are not sure
that in Afghanistan the lives and dignity of people are safe."He
added, "In the camp we have secure shelter to which our people
return after doing their work. What guarantee do we have in