(New York) -- Refugees being moved to camps nearer to the Afghanistan border are not necessarily going voluntarily, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the government of Pakistan have claimed, Human Rights Watch charged today. More than three thousand refugees have been moved so far.
Releasing testimonies taken in the New Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar, and in Kotkai camp close to the Afghanistan border, Human Rights Watch called on the government of Pakistan and UNHCR to locate refugee camps in areas where the safety of refugees and relief staff can be guaranteed.
"Refugees in Pakistan are faced with a no-win situation," said Rachael Reilly, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. "They can either move to the camps nearer to Afghanistan, where their security cannot be guaranteed, or they can stay in Peshawar, where their food supply and winter shelter cannot be guaranteed. This really amounts to no choice at all."
The involuntary relocation of refugees is contrary to an agreement reached between the government of Pakistan and UNHCR in early November to move newly arrived Afghan refugees to sites in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP, or "tribal areas"). Both parties agreed that the relocation of the refugees should be entirely voluntary.
On November 14, UNHCR and the government of Pakistan started relocating refugees from New Jalozai camp in Peshawar to Kotkai. The new site is located only eight kilometers from the border.
Pro-Taliban, pro-Pashtun and anti-foreigner sentiment in the NWFP is high, raising serious security concerns for expatriate relief workers and for refugees from ethnic minority groups, such as the Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tajiks. So far, the majority of the 3,300 relocated refugees have been Pashtuns, but there are plans to move refugees from ethnic minority groups in the near future.
Although UNHCR has asserted that the refugees are relocating voluntarily, Human Rights Watch found that many refugees did not have sufficient information about the relocation and conditions in the new camp. UNHCR ran an information campaign a few weeks prior to the registration. However, during the time that refugees were signing up, there was only one information desk in the entire camp of more than 50,000 refugees. Refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch explained that they had little information and felt that they had no option but to move.
The government of Pakistan has publicly stated that it will close New Jalozai refugee camp in Peshawar, where the refugees are currently living, due to disputes over the land. According to government policy, new Afghan refugees who arrive unofficially in Pakistan are not entitled to any assistance.
Under the November agreement between the government of Pakistan and UNHCR, however, new arrivals who are relocated to the sites in the tribal areas will be provided with assistance. Refugees who are totally dependent on relief assistance, in particular widows and other female heads of household, felt that they would be left with no shelter, food, or medical care to survive the harsh winter if they didn't move to the new camp.
Human Rights Watch also called on the government of Pakistan to increase security for international humanitarian workers working in the new camps.
"If humanitarian staff are unable to work safely in the tribal areas it defeats the whole object of the relocation," said Reilly. "The Pakistan authorities must work harder to ensure the safety of international relief workers. In the long run, safer sites for the refugees should be found."
Human Rights Watch witnessed the separation of families during the confusion of the relocation and interviewed two women who left behind their sons in school in Peshawar, 130 kilometers from the new camp, in their desperation to get on the buses departing for the new site. Other refugees told Human Rights Watch that they were reluctant to move to the new camp because it would mean leaving behind family members who lived in Peshawar.
Under the agreement between UNHCR and the government of Pakistan, tribal authorities who apprehend new arrivals at the border checkpoints are now required to send them to one of the new refugee camps, rather than taking them back to the border and returning them to Afghanistan, as they had done previously. Although this is an improvement, Human Rights Watch remains concerned that refugees in the tribal areas continue to be at risk of being returned to Afghanistan, in violation of the fundamental principle of non-refoulement.
Human Rights Watch called on UNHCR to ensure that refugees are provided with sufficient information about the relocation and the location and conditions in the new camps. Human Rights Watch urged all parties to take immediate steps to prevent armed elements from entering the camps or using them for recruitment or any other military purpose.