Uncertainty grips Afghan refugees in Pakistan as repatriation deadline nears

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Little girls play a game called "Chindro" in Pashto language in the refugee camp. (AN photo)
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Khan Mohammed (left) and elderly Abdullah (right) speaking to Arab News. (AN photo)
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Entrance to Pehlawan Pul refugee camp in Peshawar. (AN photo)
Updated 18 January 2018
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Uncertainty grips Afghan refugees in Pakistan as repatriation deadline nears

PESHAWAR: Uncertainty and fear are gripping Afghan refugees in Pehlawanano Pul refugee camp near Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK) neighboring Afghanistan, as the Pakistani government’s deadline of Jan. 31 for refugee repatriation approaches.
The Pakistani Cabinet on Jan. 3 granted only a one-month extension for 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees to stay legally in Pakistan after their legal residency status or proof-of-registration cards expired on Dec. 31.
Noor Haider, 38, a father of eight, said he has been living in Pehlawanano Pul camp since his family fled to Pakistan in 1979 after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
“I was born in Peshawar, and I have no place to live if I’m deported back to my home country,” he told Arab News.
Under the UN-backed repatriation process, Haider went back to Afghanistan a few months ago, but returned after acquiring an Afghan passport with a valid Pakistani visa.
“Under the repatriation process, Afghans are just transported to Afghanistan and left there at the mercy of God. They don’t have any support there,” he said.
Islamabad’s request for Afghan refugees, both registered and undocumented, to leave Pakistan has caused chaos among refugee families.
Abdullah Khan, 60, who was 15 years old when he moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan, said he has no home in Afghanistan, and has been living in Pehlawanano Pul for more than four decades.
“When the refugees see they can’t afford to pay rent and manage other expenses in Afghanistan, they return to Pakistan,” he told Arab News.
Repatriated refugees sometimes do not even have money to pay drivers when they reach their destination in Afghanistan, Khan added.
“The UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) pays money to an Afghan family two days after they settle down in Afghanistan,” he said.
“With no jobs or health facilities, Afghans either return to Pakistan or start begging in Afghanistan, where there are very few opportunities to earn a livelihood.”
Children play cricket outside their mud-houses. (Arab News)

UNHCR spokesman Qaiser Khan Afridi told Arab News: “Once refugees visit repatriation centers in Pakistan, the authorities give them a form that they’re leaving for their country. As these refugees enter Afghanistan, they produce the form at the centers over there and receive the payment, which is $200 per head.”
Pehlawanano Pul resident Khan Mohammed, 30, said the Afghan government ignores refugees when they reach Afghanistan.
“We were told earlier that we’d be given a small piece of land to build our house in Afghanistan, but no land was given to any of the returning refugees,” he told Arab News.
Shah Wali, born in Afghanistan and now a resident of Gundo refugee camp near Peshawar, told Arab News that he had been living in Peshawar for the last 38 years.
He said initially refugees were given rations by Pakistani authorities, but that was suspended decades ago.
Gundo houses 35 Afghan families, and hundreds of others have either been repatriated to Afghanistan or relocated to localities near Peshawar.
The Afghan refugees’ attache for KPK, Abdul Hamid Jalili, said there are 1.4 million registered and 0.7 million unregistered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, most of them in the province.
“Afghanistan is a war-ravaged country, and it’s not possible to provide every facility to returning refugees,” he told Arab News.
“From the very beginning of the crisis we’ve been asking the international community to support us, to make Afghanistan a place where Afghans can live peacefully.”
He said despite the violence and bad conditions in Afghanistan, around 7 million Afghans have returned to their native country since 2002. Afridi said Pakistan has 54 refugee camps, most of them in KPK.
The UNHCR facilitates volunteer repatriation of Afghan refugees under an agreement between it, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But last year, the UNHCR cut its cash grant for returnees from $400 to $200, citing a shortage of funds.
Pakistani authorities have urged the UNHCR and the international community to help create a conducive environment for the return of Afghan refugees to their country.
Afghan refugee Khan Mohammed told Arab News that the world must realize that sustainability is a big issue for returnees.


Top Republican says Russia probe difficult

Updated 20 min 55 sec ago
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Top Republican says Russia probe difficult

  • The Senate investigation is the last bipartisan congressional probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and connections to Trump’s campaign
  • The committee is also still talking to lawyers for former British spy Christopher Steele

WASHINGTON: For much of the last two years, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr has been the Russia investigator who is seen but rarely heard on Capitol Hill.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, the North Carolina Republican opened up about the investigation that has now consumed 19 months of his life. He says it has been “frustrating as hell” and much more difficult than he originally envisioned. But he says the integrity of the investigation — and its importance to the institution of the Senate — is something he has labored to protect.
“Nothing in this town stays classified or secret forever,” Burr said. “And at some point somebody’s going to go back and do a review. And I’d love not to be the one that chaired the committee when somebody says, ‘well, boy, you missed this.’ So we’ve tried to be pretty thorough in how we’ve done it.”
Burr said there is “no factual evidence today that we’ve received” on collusion or conspiracy between Russia and President Donald Trump’s campaign. But he said he’s still open on the issue and hasn’t personally come to any final conclusions, since the investigation isn’t finished.
The Senate investigation is the last bipartisan congressional probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and connections to Trump’s campaign. Working with the panel’s top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, Burr has so far managed to keep the investigation free from the extraordinary acrimony that has plagued work on the House side of the Capitol. The House Intelligence Committee bitterly fought through its entire Russia investigation, which ended earlier this year despite the objections of Democrats.
“From an institution standpoint I want the American people to understand that the Senate can function, even on the most serious things,” Burr said.
Normally a self-described creature of habit, Burr says his schedule has been upended. He says he has had “no life” since January 2017, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asked him to start the investigation, and as the panel has chased leads — and leads that came from those leads — in the United States and abroad. He says the international aspect of the probe, the sheer number of players connected to one another and the many lawyers that they have to deal with have made the work more challenging than originally expected.
Still, he says he doesn’t think the committee should rush to wrap up the work, saying “the worst thing we can do is to prematurely try to end” the probe. He says the panel still has a handful of people to interview behind closed doors and some who they may want to interview again, though he isn’t making any commitments on bringing witnesses forward publicly.
“If the intent is to have a show trial, I’m not a participant,” Burr says on public hearings. He says “I don’t see a reason today” to bring back Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, who participated in a meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the election. That meeting has been a focus of the committee probe and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Trump Jr. spoke to committee staff at the end of 2017.
The committee is also still talking to lawyers for former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier containing allegations of ties between Trump, his associates and Russia during the election, and lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in hopes of gaining closed-door interviews, Burr said. WikiLeaks released hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.
Burr won’t give a timeline for the end of the investigation or a final report, which could create fissures in the panel’s so-far bipartisan unity. Many Democrats are likely to disagree that there is no evidence of collusion, if that is the committee’s final conclusion.
“I am sure there will be people at the end of this who feel that we came to a conclusion that they vehemently disagree with,” Burr said. “I know that from a committee’s integrity standpoint we’ve got to prove what we find. And if you can’t prove it then we can’t make the claim.”
By putting off the final report, Burr and Warner have so far been able to maintain the bipartisan tenor.
“I have confidence in Richard Burr that we together, with the members of our committee, are going to get to the bottom of this,” Warner said last year. “And if you get nothing else from today, take that statement to the bank.”
Unlike many of his Intelligence Committee colleagues, Burr has eschewed cable television appearances and refrained from visiting the White House and interacting with Trump. Republican Sen. Jim Lankford of Oklahoma, who sits on the intelligence panel and is close to Burr, says Burr started every meeting at the beginning of the probe by asking senators not to talk to the media “until we get additional facts and we put things out together.”
Lankford says it’s possible the final report will split the committee.
“The hardest part is when staff starts going through all of the details and writes the last report,” Lankford says. “And then we start having people say, I won’t say that. That’s the threat.”
For now, Burr says, the committee is preparing to put out two reports by the end of September: one on the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s election interference, and a second on Russia’s election meddling on social media. The committee is also expected to hold a hearing with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in the first week of September.
Burr says the investigation has yielded information outside the boundaries of the probe that the committee will likely look into for years to come, including the social media manipulation.
“I don’t think any of us when we started understood just how coordinated the disinformation and societal chaos campaign was. I think what probably will be shocking is how early it started — much earlier than the parameters that people have put on the 2016 election,” Burr says, teasing information that will come out in one of the future reports. He wouldn’t give any additional details.