JALOZAI, PAKISTAN — Like more than 100,000 Afghans, Maulana Mohammed Afzal has lived in the mud-baked lanes of this refugee camp ever since he fled war-ravaged Afghanistan 26 years ago. The camp is home for his family, but Pakistan's government says it's a threat to national security.
In its most recent effort to clamp down on Taliban activity within its borders, Pakistan has announced that all 2.4 million Afghan refugees, most living in camps, must return home by 2009. This and three other camps near the Afghan border, which together hold 230,000 refugees, are scheduled to be closed by the end of August.
"The problem of cross-border militancy is closely related to the presence of ... Afghan refugees in Pakistan," Munir Akram, Pakistan's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, wrote recently to the UN Security Council. "These camps have often given rise to complaints that they provide shelter to undesirable elements and Taliban."
Many disagree, however, saying Pakistan's Afghan refugees, most of whom are Pashtun and share the same tribal ethnicity as the Taliban movement, are only being made a scapegoat.
The debate comes as Robert Gates, in his first visit to Pakistan as US secretary of Defense, met with President Musharraf in Islamabad this week to discuss the Taliban's expected spring offensive in Afghanistan.
As pressure mounts on Pakistan, analysts say the fate of the Afghan refugee community – the world's largest – is an important piece in the puzzle of regional militancy. Simply shifting them across the border could flame tensions.
"[T]he Afghan government is not capable ... of providing for their rehabilitation. It will be a source of more conflict inside Afghanistan," says Aimal Khan, a political analyst at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, which recently completed a study of Afghan refugees.
Set against such a backdrop, a recent burst of violence radiating from Pakistan's tribal zone, including two attacks in the capital, Islamabad, has placed renewed attention on refugee camps as potential hotbeds, though no Afghan suspects have been identified.
The Jalozai camp, 18 miles from Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan, looks like a small, bustling city, with a mile-long bazaar offering a wealth of goods. But a cloud of controversy hangs over its dirt lanes. According to Western media reports, the camp has incubated several high-profile terrorists, including Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. FBI agents raided the camp in October 2002, arresting four Afghans they said were connected to Al-Qaeda.
Today Jalozai and other refugee camps, which are spread throughout the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan, help fuel the Taliban resurgence, the government says.
Closing down the camps may ease the building pressure on Pakistan to combat militancy within its borders, but observers say the move could cause more problems than it solves.
An exodus of poor Afghans is likely to exacerbate existing social and economic problems inside Afghanistan. Moreover, refugees without a home or means to support themselves could fall in with the Taliban, either out of resentment or a practical need to survive.
"They're made a scapegoat," says Behroz Khan, a prominent journalist in Peshawar. "If these families are sent back by force ... these people will turn toward those forces that are against Pakistan."
Some 2.8 million Afghans have already voluntarily repatriated since 2002. Those who remain in camps feel they would be vulnerable if they return to Afghanistan, mostly because they are without land or shelter.
"I want to stay here. The government [in Afghanistan] is not in a favorable position. We have no residence in Afghanistan," says Mr. Afzal, originally from Kunduz Province in Afghanistan.
While conditions are poor in the Jalozai camp, many Afghans live better here than they would in Afghanistan, with well-built mud houses and well-kept schools. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, provides mobile health-care centers and water, amenities they may lack in a land many of them barely know.
Whether the largely Pashtun refugee population stays or goes, many in Washington say that assisting them is crucial in stemming the tide of Taliban militancy.
"[W]e need programs that address the grievances, the aspirations of the Pashtun population on both sides of that border," James Dobbins, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, told a recent Congressional hearing about Afghanistan's security.
Last week, a tripartite meeting of officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and UNHCR decided that refugees in the four camps scheduled to be closed this year will be given a choice: either to repatriate with assistance from UNHCR or to move to other camps that will remain open until 2009. In addition, more than 2 million Afghans recently registered with the government under a UNHCR program, granting them temporary resident status in Pakistan for three years.
Finding a solution to the problem is likely to be difficult, observers agree. Pakistan is not a signatory to the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention or its subsequent protocols, meaning there is no clear-cut policy on how to handle refugees here.
Many hope alternative solutions can be agreed upon. "We believe there should be a number of options. We have to look at ... how to address those who can't go home," says Vivian Tan, UNHCR's senior regional public information officer in Islamabad.