Following the US-led bombing campaign in October 2001, some 190,000 Afghans fleeing violence in their country were hosted in UNHCR refugee camps in the border areas of neighbouring Pakistan. However on February 21, 2002, the Pakistani authorities decided to seal its border to new arrivals. Around 25,000 were left stranded, just inside Pakistan.
The refugees were never given the chance to be registered or transferred to the official camps established further into Pakistani territory. Given the lack of interest by governments and agencies involved, they only had the chance to 'wait' to be admitted. Consequently, this settlement became known as the 'Waiting Area' and, from its inception, suffered from a deliberate policy from the Pakistani and Afghan authorities to limit assistance.
The proximity to the border and their ethnic composition deemed them a security risk and from the very beginning the authorities have been keen to see the population dissipate into Afghanistan.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had been working in the border area since October 2001. In its early days, Kili Faizo was just a staging camp where refugees were to remain only for a few days before being transferred to permanent camps. In that context, MSF had been providing basic health care, measles vaccination and nutritional screening. However, when Kili Faizo became the Waiting Area after February 2002, MSF decided to scale up its operations to meet the needs of the refugees.
Health care, nutritional support in the form of feeding programmes, chlorination of water and measles immunisation were all provided by MSF upon arrival. In addition, MSF advocated constantly for their admission as refugees in Pakistan, and for an immediate improvement on the levels of assistance by other agencies - effectively reminding the world of the existence of the Waiting Area.
Since 2002, the UNHCR had contemplated plans aiming at repatriating, or relocating, the refugees in the Waiting Area as well as the displaced populations around Spin Boldak. Finally, in May 2003, the Afghan and Pakistani governments agreed with the UNHCR to close the Waiting Area by the end of July and a repatriation and relocation plan was cobbled together at the last minute to try to meet the short deadline.
Zhare Dasht - the word means 'Yellow Dessert' and is situated 25kms from Kandahar, Afghanistan - had been identified as a temporary settlement for the refugees. At the eve of the relocation process, MSF advocated for the continuation of assistance in the Waiting Area and the possibility to claim asylum in Pakistan. The latter was finally granted, and refugees were offered assistance in Mohammed Kheil, a camp far away from the border. However, the option of staying behind was denied.
Consequently, enormous pressure was put on refugees to move. The agenda and immediate needs of different players had turned the refugees into a 'problem' that had to be removed, even against their will.
© Sebastian Bolesch
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After having expressed its objections regarding the pressure put on refugees to relocate and its concern with the gaps in the plan proposed, MSF declined UNHCR's invitation to participate in the relocation exercise and concentrated its efforts on advocating for dignity and fair treatment for the refugees before, during, and after the relocation.