Published on IRINnews, Nov. 20, 2006 – Halfway into a 10-week exercise to register Afghans living in Pakistan, more than 343,000 Afghan refugees have now taken part after an initial slow start, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Monday. The process is aimed at providing millions of Afghan exiles in Pakistan with identity cards valid for three years. The campaign is to continue until the end of the year. The US $6 million exercise that began on 15 October, is a follow-up to a comprehensive Afghan census conducted in Pakistan in February and March 2005, which found more than 3 million Afghans were still living in the country. However, according to UNHCR, more than 580,000 Afghans have returned home with UN assistance since the census, leaving an estimated 2.4 million Afghans still living in Pakistan.
“The pace of the registration has seen a gradual pick up, as we’re now registering about 18,000 Afghans a day against some 7,000 in the initial days,” UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Monday. A provincial breakdown of Afghan registration so far suggests that more than 162,000 have registered in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), 81,000 in Balochistan, 55,000 in Punjab including Islamabad, 37,000 in Sindh and some 5,000 in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. “The registration centres at some 45 locations have closed after completing operations while the drive is continuing in 39 centres… a few more points are in the process of opening,” the UNHCR spokeswoman added. Some 33 percent of Afghans counted in the 2005 census have been registered in Punjab’s provincial capital, Lahore – where the drive finished on Saturday.
Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) is conducting the exercise using fingerprints and photos to record information through 70 static and mobile registration centres across the country. However, many Afghans in Pakistan appear to be suspicious of the registration drive, fearing it is a prelude to forced repatriation. UN officials have tried to allay fears and have appealed to Afghan refugees to participate in registration. “With only weeks to go till the end of registration, we are urging all Afghans counted in the 2005 census to come and be registered,” Indrika Ratwatte, assistant representative of UNHCR, said in the southern port city of Karachi last week.
A range of factors has meant that the registration process has not proceeded as rapidly as officials expected. These include the inability to access a national registration database, mistakes in spelling names, a delayed mass information campaign, a lack of registration centres and inadequate training of staff. “NADRA has amended the software to make it easier to find names from the census. While we are also streamlining the process to speed up the printing and distribution of [identity] cards,” UNHCR’s assistant representative told IRIN. The UN refugee agency is in negotiations with Islamabad and Kabul on new return arrangements beyond 2006, possibly moving from individual travel assistance to area-based reintegration assistance. According to UNHCR, any future return assistance will only be given to Afghans who hold valid ID cards issued on, or after, registration. (ts/sc/j).