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Thursday, 6 December, 2001, 16:31 GMT
UN concern over Pakistan refugees
Refugee camp
Closing the borders doesn't stop the flow of refugees
By the BBC's Jill McGivering in Islamabad

Officials from the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, have expressed concern about reports that Pakistan plans to move Afghan refugees in Pakistan out of urban areas and into refugee camps.

The move is thought to be a first step in a larger plan to repatriate refugees once an interim government is established in Kabul.

The UNHCR says it would oppose any such movement of refugees against their will.

Soldier with man
Hundreds of thousands have crossed illegally
No-one knows exactly how many Afghan refugees live in Pakistan because hundreds of thousands of people have crossed into the country illegally.

One estimate is that the total is now about 3m of whom perhaps 200,000 fled from Afghanistan since the start of the US-led bombing.

This is despite the fact Pakistan kept its border with Afghanistan officially closed.

Repatriation next?

Now Pakistani officials say they plan to move Afghan refugees from urban areas to designated camps.

This move is widely seen here as a first step towards starting repatriations, once an interim government is established in Kabul.

Child crying
Thousands of children need help

Officials haven't explained how they would identify the refugees some of whom have lived in Pakistan for more than 20 years.

If this idea were really implemented it could prove highly controversial, as well as logistically fraught.

Economic pressures

UNHCR officials say they would help with returns as and when it's safe to do so.

But they also say any plan which involved forcibly picking out refugees from existing communities and moving them to camps against their will would be unacceptable.

The announcement could be an attempt to appease growing public impatience.

Many here see the refugees as a growing financial burden which has been imposed on them at a time when Pakistan's own economy is already being damaged by this latest Afghan crisis.

See also:

05 Dec 01 | South Asia
UN pleas for Afghan refugees
04 Dec 01 | South Asia
Refugees trapped in no man's land
04 Dec 01 | South Asia
Embassy refugees fear eviction
04 Dec 01 | South Asia
No shelter for freezing Afghan refugees
03 Dec 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Afghan refugee misery
30 Nov 01 | South Asia
'Cautious' UN optimism on Afghan aid
03 Dec 01 | TV and Radio reports
Afghanistan's missing millions
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