Afghan refugees find hope in camps

Published January 1, 2002

Shamshatoo Refugee Camp, Pakistan

Everywhere you look in this refugee community, life is a brown monochrome.

The simple brown mud walls and mud houses rise from the brown earth, and brown dust swirls in the air, coating everything. It would look hopeless were it not for the occasional flashes of color, including the bright blue tent-like burkas of Afghan women walking to their homes.

Hope can also be seen in the white kite that 7-year-old Abdul Maruf flies above the brown village. The Maruf family left its drought-ravaged farm in the Afghan countryside a year ago, moving in with relatives outside Mazar-e-Sharif.

Maruf lives in Shamshatoo, a 2-year-old community of more than 75,000 Afghan refugees that sprawls over treeless hills an hour outside Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan.

It’s one of about 100 refugee camps in Pakistan. Some of them are old enough that they look like settled villages more than tent cities. Just down the road is Old Shamshatoo, an Afghan refugee settlement started more than 15 years ago.

Refugees came in waves

The more than two million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan arrived in several waves: fleeing the Soviet invasion in 1979, fleeing a brutal civil war after the Soviets withdrew a decade later, fleeing the Taliban who took power in 1996, fleeing a 3-year-old drought, and, most recently, fleeing the U.S. war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

More than 100,000 new refugees have entered Pakistan since the U.S. bombing began on Oct. 7. No one knows the exact numbers. Although officially closed by Pakistani authorities, the porous border has hundreds of trails used by smugglers and drug traffickers. Refugees pass across easily.

Although Pakistan has long hosted the largest concentration of refugees in the world, the international community has been less than generous in lending a hand.

Donor fatigue

In 1981, when Afghanistan was at center stage in the Cold War, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spent $109 million for refugees here. In 2000, the total had dropped to barely $17 million. Donor fatigue combined with shifting geopolitical priorities left Pakistan almost alone with the burden of refugees, until Sept. 11 and the subsequent war thrust Afghan refugees back into the limelight.

Many of the refugees are crowded into already packed Pakistani cities like Peshawar, where local residents complain about the social impact.

With Pakistan’s economy suffering hard times from canceled factory orders and reduced travel in the wake of the September terrorist attacks in the United States, the tension between the two nationalities has grown. Afghan refugees make handy scapegoats for local problems.

The Pakistani government is uncomfortable with the negative publicity being given to the refugee camps.

While journalists are reluctantly allowed into Shamshatoo, they are refused entry into Jalozai, an even more squalid camp for newly arrived refugees just a few kilometers down the road.

The government has also refused to let most nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) near Jalozai. Gul Wali, the coordinator of Catholic Relief Services in Peshawar, said government refugee officials argued to him that taking food aid to Jalozai residents “would be a disincentive to move.”

Pakistan wants UNHCR to relocate the people in Jalozai to a string of 11 camps in remote areas near the Afghan border. While the isolated camps will provide food and shelter to the refugees, what aid workers term a “pull factor,” the location will take the refugees away from day jobs and markets where they earn extra money.

And there will be no turning back. The trip to the new camps “is clearly a one-way ticket,” said Kjell Helge Godtfredsen, director of Norwegian Church Aid’s emergency program with Afghan refugees.

In the first week of the relocation campaign, 3,388 refugees accepted the UNHCR bus ride to Kotkai, the first of the new camps to be occupied. All the residents at Kotkai are ethnic Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.

By early December, the UNHCR had hoped to begin busing ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks off to other new camps along the border.

The U.N. agency also wants to convince some of the so-called “invisible refugees” to take up its offer of relocation.

These are refugees who have recently entered the country secretly and live with relatives in Peshawar’s urban neighborhoods or hide out in one of the mud-walled family compounds inside Shamshatoo.

There are too many to be truly invisible, and yet the government has discouraged NGOs from getting involved in helping them. The UNHCR has insisted, however, and in late November launched a low-profile program to give one-time food assistance to 25,000 “invisibles” living in Peshawar.

In Quetta, 600 kilometers to the southwest of Peshawar, the government prohibits any support of unofficial new arrivals.


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