Survey of Afghan refugees in Pakistan will help plot future course

News Stories, 16 November 2011

© UNHCR/D.A.Khan
Khadija, an ethnic Turkman refugee from Afghanistan, weaves a carpet alongside her sister and mother-in-law. On average, the family produces two carpets a month.

ATTOCK, Pakistan, November 16 (UNHCR) Haji Saadat never imagined he would spend more than three decades in exile when he first fled Afghanistan and took refuge in Pakistan.

After leaving his home in Jawzjan in northern Afghanistan, Haji and his family spent nine years in a refugee camp in north-western Pakistan. In 1991, they moved to Attock, a small town in the Pakistani province of Punjab.

Haji's 13-member extended family is one of the more than 2,500 ethnic Turkman families in Attock, who make their living through carpet weaving. Two of the three rooms in the family's rented house are set aside for carpet making. Family members work in shifts from dawn until dusk seated in front of wooden frames on which they weave woollen strands into intricate patterns.

Despite his many years as a refugee, Haji does not yet feel the time is right to return home. Continuing insecurity in Afghanistan and better economic prospects in Pakistan have convinced him like many other Afghan refugees to postpone plans to repatriate.

Recently, Haji and his family took part in a UNHCR-supported survey which aims to gather information on the living conditions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, their challenges and what, if any, obstacles are keeping them from returning home.

The Population Profiling, Verification and Response (PPVR) exercise began in August and survey teams belonging to a UNHCR partner agency have interviewed more than 60,000 Afghan households, about 50 per cent of the total targeted Afghan refugee population. The survey will continue until the end of 2011.

The findings of the PPVR exercise will inform the Pakistan government's new multi-year strategy to manage the world's most protracted refugee situation. Voluntary repatriation, which has seen more than 5 million Afghans return home, remains at the centre of the Afghan Management and Repatriation Strategy.

The government's strategy also envisages a system of stay permits that would allow a limited number of Afghans in Pakistan to remain in the country for a determined period of time. This includes various categories of Afghan refugees who may be granted permits as businessmen, students and labourers. Certain vulnerable groups, such as widows with children could also be given residency rights.

"For sure I want to go to Afghanistan, who wants to die and be buried in a land that does not belong to you," said Haji Sadaat. "I can only go when the situation there is stable, but I hear from my relatives that life there is very difficult."

Haji's daughter-in-law, Khadija, aged 38, said that she wants to remain in Pakistan and, if given a choice, she would not have to make carpets. "If had the opportunity, I would like to do tailoring," Khadia shyly told a visiting UNHCR team. "My whole body aches because of sitting long hours for carpet weaving."

But for now the family depends on the business. On average they complete at least two carpets a month, which brings in an income of around 40,000 Pakistan rupees a month, or about US$450.

Meeting recently with Haji and other members of the Turkman refugee group, UNHCR Deputy Representative to Pakistan Maya Ameratunga urged all Afghans to help the PPVR teams collect accurate data. "The data from the survey will very much help the government of Pakistan and UNHCR to make informed decisions on how to respond to the needs of Afghan refugees," she told the group.

Pakistan currently hosts some 1.7 million Afghan refugees with neighbouring Iran home to one million. So far this year, more than 60,000 Afghan refugees have returned home.

By Duniya Aslam Khan in Attock, Pakistan

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