UNHCR says Pakistan breaks Afghan screening deal
ISLAMABAD, Aug 31 (Reuters) - The United Nations suspended its participation in the screening of Afghan refugees in Pakistan on Friday, saying the government had broken an agreement by taking refugees back to Afghanistan after saying they were going to a nearby camp.
"We are temporarily suspending our participation in the screening process," Yusuf Hassan, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told Reuters. "We consider this a clear breach of our agreement with the government."
Hassan said the UNHCR had confirmed reports that about 28 Afghan families had been lured on to government trucks on Wednesday by the promise they were being taken from Jallozai -- a makeshift refugee camp infamous for its appalling conditions -- to another well-equipped refugee camp.
The UNHCR official said they had confirmed that the refugees -- numbering about 145, many from northern Afghanistan, which remains outside Taliban control, were handed over to Taliban authorities at the Pakistan border.
The UNHCR-government agreement to screen Afghan refugees in Jallozai and other camps was reached in early August after protracted talks because of the two sides' conflicting goals. Pakistan, alarmed at an influx of about 200,000 Afghan refugees over the last year that has taken the total number of Afghans to around two million, has refused to accept more and wants many of those already there to go home.
A Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman told a news conference in Islamabad that the Afghans who were returned to Afghanistan were new arrivals and not refugees.
"According to our reports and these were also press reports these were new arrivals," said Riaz Muhammad Khan.
"Pakistan is not throwing out any Afghan refugees who are in Jallozai camp or Shamshatu camp when a joint screening is taking place," Khan added.
"However, Pakistan is not in a position to absorb any further flows of Afghan refugees who are mostly economic migrants."
The UNHCR, whose mandate is to protect refugees, wants to ensure that those with legitimate rights to seek refuge -- such as fear of persecution -- are not returned to Afghanistan against their will.
The pact provides for joint teams of UNHCR and government officials to interview refugees to determine whether they wanted to return to Afghanistan or had legitimate claims to stay in Pakistan.
The UNHCR says there are now about two million Afghans in Pakistan, 1.6 million in Iran and others scattered about the world. Their country has been destroyed by more than two decades of war and in recent years, by drought.
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