Ogata faces crisis talks with Pakistan over refugees - The Nation
ISLAMABAD-The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, who is arriving in Islamabad, faces unprecedented problems with the ongoing refugee crisis in Afghanistan, the worsening plight of Afghans inside the country, who have fled battlefield zones and the acute problems faced by Pakistan in being able to care for an official tally of 1.2 million Afghan refugees who are registered in Pakistan, although there are at least over 1.5 million refugees who are not registered.
Moreover, UNHCR itself faces an acute financing problem and has had to drastically cut its funding of Afghan refugee programmes in both Iran and Pakistan, while more popular causes such as the plight of refugees in Yugoslavia and East Timor received substantial funding.
The Year 1980: Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees pour into Pakistan to escape the Soviet invasion and the world lavishes enormous funds for their feeding and upkeep. The year 2000, With 1.2 million Afghan refugees still in Pakistan and another 1.4 in Iran, the world forgets about Afghanistan and those countries who are saddled with the problems of caring for these refugees.
The tragedy for these refugees is that Pakistan is no longer able to provide for even the basic upkeep of these refugees and nor is UNHCR. This year UNHCR has only a 12 million dollar budget to repatriate 100,000 refugees back to Afghanistan. The UNHCR health care and education programmes in the refugee camps have been cut completely and the package given to returning refugees is a pittance - just Rs 5000 per family and some food - hardly enough for a family to restart a life back in war torn Afghanistan. "Many many people want to return despite the war, but we can do nothing about funding their return, we are not able to even provide them with transport costs," said a senior UNHCR official in Islamabad. The UNHCR's Afghan office asked for 7.5 million dollars to help fund the arriving refugees and settle them down. The international donor community gave a grand total of 2 million dollars. In refugee villages, the refugees themselves are now paying for such basic needs as water, food, education health and other services, whereas, during the Soviet war this was all funded by international donors.
Donor countries say Pakistan should now integrate these refugees inside the country and treat them as local citizens - a burden that an economically cash strapped government does not even want to contemplate. No Pakistan government has as yet to respond to the millions of Biharis in Bangladesh who still want to come and resettle in Pakistan.
Accepting the world's demand to permanently accept Afghans would open the floodgates. As a result, the poverty levels of Afghans in Pakistan have increased dramatically - they have been the first to feel the impact of the local recession. Thus these refugees are facing the acute drought conditions, lack of donor or Pakistani aid and no aid programmes from UNHCR. Many families are being forced to turn to crime, prostitution, drug addiction and drug peddling just to survive. Last month, the UN Drug Control Programme put out the first exhaustive report of drug addiction in Peshawar and Quetta which paints a dismal and bleak picture.
For the government, the result is that Pakistan is rapidly turning into an urban night mare. Although the registered refugees still live in refugee villages in Balochistan and NWFP, they rely on working to sustain themselves, undercutting local labour markets at a time of acute recession and creating growing resentment amongst local people, whose deep well springs of hospitality are now running dry. Poverty stricken refugees are now crowding into urban centres to try and make a living. Quetta has some 1,32,000 registered refugees, but there are an estimated 300,000-600,000 more unregistered refugees living in and around the city. There are at least 500,000 unregistered refugees in Karachi and most of them are living well below the subsistence level. Most dramatic of all is Peshawar, where some one million refugees are now living, creating an enormous burden on urban infrastructure, resources and jobs. Pakistani cities are becoming deluged with a flood of refugees and migrant labour which no government has the capacity to cope with.
While Pakistan will be urging Ogata for more international funds, so that UNHCR can repatriate refugees more quickly, Ogata will be unable to provide any satisfactory answers.
Pakistan itself has not signed the UNHCR Convention or the protocol, which gives arriving refugees the right of asylum and provides a framework for their funding and eventual repatriation. For the last 20 years, Pakistan has hosted refugees out of its goodwill. The quicker Pakistan signs these protocols, the better chance it may have at trying to attract wider international concern for the refugee problem which Islamabad faces, Pakistan has had an excellent record as a host country, but it has not received the credit from the international community in the shape of funds to repatriate refugees faster. This is due to Pakistan's Afghan policy, constantly backing the extreme the Afghan Mujahideen and unwilling to position itself to push through a wider peace settlement. Only peace and an end to the war will actually bring about a change from the international community and the eventual hope that a reconstruction fund will be created, which will help Afghanistan recover from its desperate condition.
However at the same time, Ogata has done little to raise the world's awareness of Afghanistan, the pitiful plight of the refugees or the problems faced by Pakistan. She has been constantly neglecting Afghanistan in international forums and has played to the gallery of international concerns such as Yugoslavia or East Timor depending on the issue of the day, rather than equally highlighting, what is still the world's largest refugee problem. Moreover, Ogata should be stressing to the world that only peace in Afghanistan will help end the refugee crisis for neighbouring countries and of course Afghanistan itself. Instead, she has been silent on this issue, refusing to speak out, as all UN heads of agencies should be doing now, that unless there is peace, there can be no solution.
There is no quick solution to these problems except the advantages to be gained by a peaceful end to the war. Ogata will face the anger and frustration of a government that is no longer able to provide fully for its own people leave alone millions of refugees. The refugees themselves have no voice in urging the warlords to end the fighting and establish peace, the UNHCR will quote the lack of funding, donor fatigue and other commitments and express its inability to do anything much. In the meantime vast areas of major Pakistani cities are becoming slum, no-go areas where the state is helpless and unable to provide even basic amenities such as water. It's a dead end situation which Pakistan could try to begin resolving by developing a more even-handed Afghan policy.
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