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Thursday, 4 July, 2002, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
Afghan exodus hits Pakistan
Peshawar street scene
Many Afghan shops in Peshawar have closed down

More than a million Afghan refugees have gone back home from Pakistan this year, including many businessmen and skilled workers.


Business has definitely gone down and there's a slump not only in property but in every field

Pakistani property dealer
Every day, the shutters come down for good on an increasing number of Afghan-owned carpet shops in Pakistan.

Pakistani authorities used to say the Afghans were a burden on local resources such as hospitals, schools and water supplies and they were blamed for an increase in crime and drug dealing.

They are keen to encourage the Afghan refugees to go back home, and nearly half have already done so.

But their trading and business skills could prove difficult to replace.

Time to go home

In the border town of Peshawar - once the centre of the carpet trade - now whole rows of shops lie empty.

Map
Haji Zahir has lived in Pakistan with his family for the past 18 years, but once the Loya Jirga or grand assembly met in Kabul and formed a new government, he decided it was time to go back.

"It seems that in Afghanistan the businesses are doing well and day after day things are returning to normal and our businesses will flourish there," he said.

Haji Zahir sold his shop and most of his carpets in Peshawar. Some of them went to fellow Afghan Sharafuddin Katawazy.

He will wait a few more months before going back to southern Afghanistan. But he says the departure of the Afghans is having a major impact on Pakistan's economy.

"In Peshawar I think that each day there are three container loads of carpets going out to Europe, London and American - they are worth tens of thousands of dollars," he said.

Big business

The Afghans in Pakistan did not only dominate carpet weaving and selling,

They also brought in foreign currency sent from their relatives abroad, and they ran a huge range of businesses including transport, bridal wear shops and vegetable stalls.

Afghan refugees crossing the border
Afghan traders brought in much needed foreign currency

Some of the former carpet shops are now occupied by Pakistani car repair workshops.

The Pakistani businessmen see the departure of the Afghans as a good opportunity.

It means that Pakistani labourers have a better chance of daily work - and traders can step in to fill the vacuum.

The President of Peshawar's Chamber of Commerce Malik Zahid Hussain warned there could be some initial problems.

"The Afghan refugees were in every field," he said.

"They controlled 95% of businesses here and everything was in their hands. For a month or two there will be some setback, but in the long term it will be better for the trade," he said.

Property slump

But many of the refugees, such as Haji Zahir, lived in a well kept residential area on the outskirts of Peshawar called Hayatabad.

Now they are leaving, the rents have dropped by up to half and house prices are also falling.

The Khyber Pass leading to Afghanistan
Afghans are taking their skills back home

Local property dealers such as Major Muzamil Khan said it was getting difficult to find tenants.

"Business has definitely gone down and there¿s a slump not only in property but in every field," he said. "Most of the houses are vacant now and people are not coming here."

The first stop for the returnees going back from Peshawar is the centre run by the United Nations refugee agency just outside the city, where they are registered.

They are only given travel expenses, food and other aid once inside Afghanistan..

Mohammed Ayub Khawreen of the UN refugee agency said there was great enthusiasm among the Afghans who arrived on trucks piled high with all their possessions.

"Those who are returning are very keen - you can see the smiles on their faces," he said.

"Of course among returnees there are skilled people especially now when they are really needed inside Afghanistan. They are particularly keen to go to Kabul and the numbers increase each day."

It is less than an hour's drive up the twisting Khyber Pass through the mountains to Torkham, the crowded town at the Afghan border.

Each day 10,000 returnees cross here into Afghanistan. Haji Zahir's family rushed across, barely looking back - knowing that in just six hours they would be back in Kabul.


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