Hundreds of Afghan refugees stranded on way home

GENEVA (Reuters) – Hundreds of Afghans seeking to return home from northwest Pakistan have been stranded because a tribal clash has closed down a road leading to Afghanistan, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday.

Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said repatriations along the Peshawar-Torkham highway have been halted and would resume when the road reopens.

More than 360 Afghan families who were cleared for repatriation from Peshawar have been unable to leave due to the roadblock, he said. The UNHCR has given food, plastic sheets and blankets to the most needy families, he told a news briefing.

Redmond said the highway closure raised the need for more time for the 70,000 Afghans living in the Jalozai refugee camp to repatriate or to go to another refugee facility in Pakistan.

The deadline for the closure of the Jalozai camp was meant to be Tuesday (today), and more than 3,000 Afghans have repatriated from Jalozai in recent weeks. It is among camps being closed as part of a “consolidation process” by Pakistani authorities who have raised security concerns, he said.

“UNHCR acknowledges that Jalozai must be closed as previously agreed and that its residents must cooperate by leaving on time. Nonetheless, we hope the Pakistani government can give them a little more time in view of the current impasse on the Peshawar-Torkham road,” Redmond said.

“We have also urged the authorities to be more proactive on relocating Afghans who cannot return to Afghanistan,” he said.

More than 5 million Afghans have gone home from Pakistan and Iran since the overthrow of the ruling Taliban in 2001, but 2 million registered Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan and 1 million live in Iran, according to the UNHCR.

Insecurity on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have fanned concerns about rapid or large-scale repatriations. Last year Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UNHCR signed an agreement to ensure any returns were voluntary and gradual, with the utmost concern for the refugees’ safety.

“UNHCR will continue to work with the authorities to ensure that Jalozai’s closure takes place in a peaceful and orderly way, and that the safety and dignity of its Afghan residents are respected,” Redmond said.

Afghan refugee returns from southwestern Pakistan are unaffected and are continuing, he said.

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