Saba Haq

Saba Haq (Afghan Women's Network - AWN): Saba is from Peshawar, Pakistan. She received her BS in Accounting and Economics from the Stern School of Business at New York University. After graduation, she worked for two years as an Audit Associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers L.L.P. Saba also worked as an intern at the United Nations Capital Development Fund in the Special Unit for Microfinance. At the time of her fellowship, Saba was studying for a Master’s degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, concentrating on development economics and conflict resolution in Southwest Asia.

Repatriating Refugees

14 Feb

For a nation that never signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Pakistan has nonetheless hosted roughly 3 million Afghan refugees during the past 25 years. After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and the signing of a tripartite agreement between the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Afghan refugees living in Pakistan were required to register their presence in Pakistan in order to be eligible for cash payments for voluntary repatriation. In order to learn more about the Afghan registration and voluntary repatriation processes, Sadaf and I went to visit the UNHCR voluntary repatriation centre (VRC) in Hyatabad.

The UNHCR VRC is located directly across the street from Kacha Garhi refugee camp, formerly one of the largest camps in Peshawar, Pakistan hosting approximately 60,000 refugees at it’s peak. UNHCR Senior Public Information Clerk Rabia Ali gave Sadaf and I a tour of the VRC and informed us about the multistep process that refugees go through prior to receiving their cash payments.

First, all Afghans residing in Pakistan were required to register with UNHCR during a 20 week window between October 2006 and February 2007. Registered refugees then received a Proof of Registration (PoR) card valid for 3 years recognizing the individual as an inhabitant of Pakistan. The card features a photo of the refugee, a list of family members, and a unique identification number. The information is also inputted into Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). Refugees that did not register during this period are treated as illegal immigrants and are not therefore entitled to any cash payments for repatriating.

The Repatriation Process:

Refugees interested in repatriating first arrive at the scheduling center at UNHCR VRC. At the scheduling desk, the refugees give their family name, the number of family members repatriating to UNHCR personnel and request and receive a repatriation date.

Next, the refugees go to the NADRA station. UNHCR personnel take the PoR Card and enter the unique ID number on the card into the system. One card is issued per adult or young adult with children listed on the back of their parent’s cards. When an ID number is entered into the system, the names of other registered family members also appear on the screen. The individual’s fingerprint, which was also taken upon registration, appears as well. In order to de-register the refugee, a prerequisite for repatriation, a fingerprint of each individual applying for repatriation is taken. This fingerprint must match the fingerprint that is in the system from registration. If the fingerprints of a child do not match as children’s fingerprints are subject to change, they are taken to another center, where a photograph of the child is matched to one provided upon initial registration.

At the next station, the information on a family’s Voluntary Repatriation Form (VRF) is matched with the Proof of Registration Cards. The PoR cards are placed under a black light to view the UNHCR logo to ensure known that the cards are not forged. Being a former Auditor and an individual interested in control mechanisms, I was very surprised that this test was not performed at the NADRA station. By the same token, cards forgeries are relatively rare. The names and numbers of individuals listed on the Proof of Registration Cards are matched with the information on the VRF on the computer monitor. After the match is performed, a corner of the POR cards is cut off to indicate that the individual has been deregistered. One copy of the VRF is printed at this point. The VRF is then signed and dated by the individual who matched the names on the POR cards with the VRF. The printed form is handed to the refugee.

Refugees then visit the iris scanning center. There are two iris scanning computers/devices at UNHCR in Hyatabad. Both the right and left eyes are scanned. A unique ID number is assigned to the scanned image. Two sticker labels are printed including the date and time of the scan, which iris scanning terminal the individual was scanned at, their VRF number, and their unique ID scan number. These two stickers (one for each eye scanned), are placed on the back of the VRF form.

While I was at the iris scanning machine, a woman going through the repatriation process was scanned in front of me. She was then rescanned to test the system. Within seconds of performing the scan the second time, a popup box appeared stating that the image is a duplicate. If a refugee were to dispute the validity of this claim, they are informed of the date and time and place they had previously performed the iris scan. The only purpose of the iris scan is to prevent refugees from collecting multiple repatriation payments. The amount of money received for repatriation differs based on what the refugees point of origin is. Per UNHCR, the average amount of money received is $83 per individual in a family. Two of the refugees we spoke with stated that they don’t ever receive what they are promised and that a more reasonable estimate is $39 dollars. It also seemed to be the case that refugees aren’t aware of the compensation that they will receive in advance. Beyond the cash payment, highly vulnerable individuals (such as the elderly, pregnant women, the disabled), are usually given a UNHCR shelter kit. In addition, the Government of Afghanistan is working on land allocation programs to further assist these individuals.

While the iris scans are not 100% accurate, they have proven to be a relatively quick and highly effective way of identifying potential scammers. After the iris scan has been performed, a check is placed next to the name of each family member indicating that the scan was completed successfully. The iris scanning process alone can take up to 15 minutes for each family. Children under the age of 5 are not scanned. They are identified by photos instead.

After the iris scanning, the refugee then goes to the validation center. At the validation center, the destination of the refugees is matched with an encashment center in that province. If a refugee is repatriating to Kabul, their payment will be given at the Kabul office. An ID number for their entitlement to cash payment is added to their VRF. These ID numbers are crossed off a sheet as they are assigned. They are then added to a manual log where the refugees name, destination, and encashment center is listed for UNHCR’s own records. The refugees’ VRF is then stamped on the back with a validation stamp indicating that the validation process was completed. By this point, the VRF has about 6 different colored stamps, various labels, stickers, checkmarks, notes, and signatures.

The VRF is then taken to another UNHCR station where two photocopies are made. Two photocopies are given to the refugee and the original is retained by UNHCR. The refugee then returns to the VRC on their pre-assigned repatriation date.

Refugees thoughts on Repatriation:

After receiving our tour of the VRC, Sadaf and I spoke with two women who were going through the repatriation process about their feelings about returning to Afghanistan. Dilbara, a widow and mother of eight, said she had many concerns about returning. ‘We will have lots of problems in Afghanistan. There is no gas, no water, and in a few months it will be winter and it will be very cold.’ When I asked Zia Gul, a 25 year-old resident of Kacha Garhi camp, about how she felt about the voluntary repatriation program, she responded, ‘It isn’t voluntary. Our homes are being destroyed by
UNHCR. We have no choice but to leave.’

The lack of alternatives available to camp residents makes the term ‘voluntary repatriation’ seem absurd. I am confident saying that while Afghan refugees do, as a whole, desire to return to Afghanistan, the lack of security and basic services in Afghanistan make the refugee camps in Pakistan look relatively appealing. Since the camps are being closed, the refugees have no choice but to either voluntarily return to Afghanistan or to move to relocation camps within Pakistan. It is only a matter of time before these relocation camps are also closed. Neither option is really ideal.

While we weren’t allowed to visit Kacha Garhi camp since it’s currently in the process of being closed, as we drove by we saw the occasional charpoy (bed) strewn here or there in an otherwise empty and seemingly endless maze of mud huts. Rabia informed us that for the past two weeks, about 300 families from Kacha Garhi have been repatriating daily. The camp is expected to be fully emptied within the next 3 months.


Posted By Saba Haq

Posted Feb 14th, 2011


  • Saba Haq

    July 19, 2007


    There is a really good article by Laura Hammond entitled ‘This Place Will Become Home: Refugee Repatriation to Ethiopia’ (2004). If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend it. It discusses how the return of refugees to their own countries is rarely the same thing as a return home. It’s been a while since I’ve read it myself but I remember it being very interesting if you’re interested in forced migration.

  • Saba Haq

    July 19, 2007


    I think the most painful part of the entire process is the fact that it’s not even the refugees’ decision to return. The lack of any reasonable alternative makes the decision for them.

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