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Pakistan has highest burden of refugees

To coincide with World Refugee day on 20th June, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has published an update showing there are nearly 44 million displaced people across the globe in 2010, more than half of them children.

Of the global total, over 15 million are refugees, 27.5 million internally displaced and nearly 1 million people waiting to be assigned refugee status. Though the number of refugees fell slightly compared to 2009 levels, more people were experiencing problems returning home and therefore the number of long-term refugees was at its highest for a decade. And contrary to the perception of many that industrialised countries are being flooded by refugees, the new report highlights the fact that developing countries host two-fifths of the world’s refugees.

With a refugee population of 1.9 million (nearly all from Afghanistan), Pakistan leads the list of these developing countries. This number also has the biggest economic impact of anywhere in the world, because it means Pakistan has 710 refugees for each US dollar of its per capita gross domestic product (GDP). By comparison, a country such as Germany has only 17 refugees for each dollar of its GDP. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has highlighted how currently “it’s poorer countries that are left having to pick up the burden”. Mr Guterres called for increased resettlement and “accelerated peace initiatives in long-standing conflicts”.

Despite the bleak picture surrounding the burden of refugees in Pakistan, there was some good news concerning internally displaced people (IDP) within its borders. Three years after fleeing conflict in north-western Pakistan, more than 38,000 IDPs have headed home in the latest phase to return displaced Pakistanis. People started fleeing border areas with Afghanistan in the wake of the crackdown on insurgents which began in 2008. At the peak of the crisis in 2009, the largest camp for the displaced in Jalozai had 147,000 people.

Now Pakistan’s government has declared certain areas, such as the Bajaur Agency, safe for people to return. Many families have therefore been leaving Jalozai camp and UNHCR staff have been monitoring the process. According to a UNHCR spokesperson in Peshawar, the agency has been working to ensure families are able to return “in a dignified manner and on a voluntary basis”. UNHCR has therefore been assisting with transportation costs for returnees and once families reach their home areas, warehouses in Bajaur and Mohmand Agencies provide them with a package of essential household supplies. The UN’s World Food Programme is also offering returnees cash for work through programmes in the region. Baktiar Khan, his wife and six children are one family to leave Jalozai camp. Baktiar is confident that the new security will allow him to farm safely and though he describes life in the camp as “not too difficult”, he and his children are glad to leave the tent in which they were living during the hot summers for “the cool stream by our house”.

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