09/16/2004, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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United Nations tasks Faisalabad Caritas with repatriating Afghan refugees living in local diocese

by Qaiser Felix

Faisalabad (AsiaNews) – The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) asked Caritas Pakistan to collaborate in the voluntary repatriation programme for Afghan refugees currently living in the country.

Anjum Gill, diocesan executive secretary of Caritas Pakistan in Faisalabad, told AsiaNews that the Catholic non governmental organisation is the only NGO dealing with the issue.

Caritas' secretary general tasked the Faisalabad branch with conducting a survey among local Afghan refugees. The latter contacted local government authorities to gather information but was told that none was available. When its teams did survey the area alone, they found 510 Afghan families for a total 2550 people living in ten separate areas in the city of Faisalabad. "There are still five areas within the diocese that will soon be surveyed. We expect to find another 1500 families," Mr Gill said.

According to the Faisalabad diocesan executive secretary, most refugees do not want go back home because of the current difficulties in Afghanistan. Many have been able to obtain Pakistani identity papers by less than legal means. "Local politicians and religious extremists helped them: the former want their vote, the latter want to use them," Mr Gill charged. Ignorance and poverty make Afghans easy targets "for exploitation", he added.

The Caritas report highlights how local government ha so far failed to measure and understand the refugee problem.

To complete its task, Caritas in Faisalabad has appealed to foreign donors. Mr Gill expects that "as soon as money arrives, we shall provide refugees with food, shelter and repatriation papers". He also said that any debts refugees may have contracted in Pakistan will be settled.

According to the 2003 three-party agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR, all Afghan refugees must be voluntarily repatriated by 2006. Till then they are entitled to the UNHCR's regular repatriation assistance package.

There are about 200 refugee camps throughout Pakistan especially in the North-West corner of the country along the border with Afghanistan. So far the UN refugee agency has helped 2.25 million Afghan refugees go home. In the first five months of 2004 an additional 100,000 Afghan refugees have been repatriated.

The diocese of Faisalabad covers a 35,300 km2 area and is home to about 132,000 Catholics. Caritas operates in the territories of Faisalabad, Toba Tek Sing, Jhang, Okara, Pukara and Sahiwaal.

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