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UN agency warns Afghans could die in harsh winter if they don’t find proper shelter after leaving Pakistan

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KABUL: The UN refugee agency has warned that Afghans could die in harsh winter conditions if they do not get adequate shelter after crossing the border from Pakistan.

Nearly half a million Afghans have left Pakistan since the beginning of October, when the Islamabad government announced it would arrest and deport foreigners living in the country illegally. Most of them are from neighboring Afghanistan, although Islamabad says the policy does not target any specific nationality.

The forced return is increasing pressure on Afghanistan and aid agencies, which are providing most essential services such as health care. Freezing temperatures are rising and conditions at the border remain critical.

“Many Afghan returnees, including women and children, are vulnerable, who could lose their lives in the harsh winter if left without adequate shelter,” the UN refugee agency said in a report published on Friday (Dec 8). “People arriving at the border are exhausted and need immediate assistance as well as psychosocial support.”

Families told the agency they were worried that cold winter temperatures in some areas, especially mountainous areas, might prevent them from returning home immediately.

“Many people are arriving with illnesses such as bronchitis as a result of the cold weather and difficult travel through Pakistan,” the agency said in a message to The Associated Press on Sunday (December 10). “They may not have all their belongings, including clothing, and therefore be unable to protect themselves from the elements.”

It said that among those returning to Afghanistan, there are also families who have never lived in the country. They have lived in Pakistan for one or more generations and may not have a home or extended family to return to.

Paying rent requires cash, while families with few existing social networks can stay with family or friends. Others may return to homes in need of repairs. The agency said it will provide tents to such families.

“Those with no place to go, with limited means, may live in camps set up near the border,” the refugee agency said.

The Taliban committee said it was distributing food, water, SIM cards, clothes and cash at two major border crossings: Torkham and Spin Boldak. The committee said Sunday that families are also learning about Afghanistan, the Islamic system, temporary living arrangements, registration and relocation.

But extreme temperatures and limited access to clean water and sanitation have led to an increase in infectious diseases and malnutrition.

UN Women said there are additional challenges for Afghan women and girls leaving Pakistan as they have to deal with Taliban restrictions that can affect their mobility and access to information and services if they have no male relatives. It expressed similar concerns after deadly earthquakes struck the west of Afghanistan in October.

The agency said about 80 percent of the Afghans returning from Torkham and Spin Boldak were women and children.

In its latest report published on Friday, it said many women have gone through “tragic experiences” in Pakistan, including being victims of illegal detention, seeing their spouses or family members arrested, or being separated from relatives and alone. Including returning to Afghanistan.

The women told UN agencies that they were “forced” to hand over their property in exchange for transportation, to leave all their belongings behind, or to have their income confiscated by Pakistani authorities.

This action is highly controversial and has been condemned by human rights groups, the Taliban, aid agencies, and the United Nations.



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