October issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

Rather than dispensing the branded drugs authorised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for Afghans being repatriated under the agency’s auspices, ailing refugees are being administered spurious or cheaper substandard medicines by the NGO contracted to oversee the job. For example, Ibuprofen (brand name, Brufen) has been substituted for Klint ñ a highly substandard replacement.

Refugees identified as candidates for repatriation by another NGO working in the field, are sent to the implementing agency appointed by the UNHCR mission in Karachi. Instead of receiving the required assistance, a sizeable fee is demanded from the refugees for the service that is supposed to be provided to them gratis.

A doctor employed at the VRC (Voluntary Repatriation Centre) at the Hub Afghan Camp finds his services terminated because his 10 thousand rupee a month salary is considered too high. He is replaced by a ëdoctorí charging only eight thousand rupees monthly. Interestingly the money allocated for doctors under the UNHCR repatriation scheme is in the range of 20 ñ 25 thousand rupees monthly.

These are just a few of the complaints that have poured into the Karachi mission of the UNHCR. They come from assorted NGOs working with Afghan refugees and former employees of local NGOs that have been awarded the contracts for the repatriation project ñ some of whom had their services terminated after they filed the complaints.

While the list of allegations of grave irregularities reported to UNHCRís Karachi mission is lengthy, the following is all the latter reported to its head office: in Islamabad. ìAlthough the health units at the VRCs are providing medical assistance to the repatriates, paying special attention to the possibility of dehydration of youngsters during the long journey [back to Afghanistan], we received a report that three children coming from Karachi died of dehydration in the Kandahar encashment centre. The medical unit is providing one package of ORS to each child up to 15 years of age for the tripÖî

The reluctance of the Karachi UNCHR mission to relay the information it had received to its head office owes to a simple fact: its own alleged complicity in the malpractices.

The corruption of the NGOs involved in these irregularities, allegedly in collaboration with some senior UNCHR officials, has in fact stymied to a large extent the greatest repatriation of refugees in world history.

Soon after the fall of the Taliban and the takeover of the interim Afghan government by Hamid Karzai, the international community began to devise repatriation schemes for Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. While there was tacit acceptance of the fact that thousands of refugees would not voluntarily return home, and could not be forced to, the attempt was to facilitate those who were willing to return to Afghanistan.

After the Tokyo conference in January 2002, where the heads of different countries pledged to contribute five billion dollars for the rebuilding, reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan, the world community agreed to aggressively encourage the repatriation. It is, of course, a different story how the international community has betrayed the Afghan nation by releasing only a fraction of the funds pledged in Tokyo, but the repatriation effort was undertaken by the UNCHR nonetheless.

It launched its operation in Pakistan, where according to one estimate, at least 3.2 million Afghans have sought refuge. The UNCHR project in Pakistan, a 273 million US dollar enterprise proposed to repatriate some 400 thousand refugees in its first phase, from March 2002 to December 2002. As part of the programme, VRCs were set up in different parts of the country, especially where there were larger concentrations of refugees, such as parts of NWFP, Balochistan and Karachi.

Rather than appointing its own staff at these VRCs, the UNCHR awarded a local NGO, SHARP, which had earlier been engaged in other projects with the UN mission, the contract to assist it in implementing the repatriation operation. SHARP was involved in all the phases of repatriation, including surveys of refugee clusters, an agency information campaign, pre-registration of Afghans, verification and registration of those Afghans who opt for voluntary repatriation assistance, and data base management. A huge budget of several million rupees was allocated and put at the disposal of SHARP for staffing and other repatriation-related activities, including construction of the VRCs.

According to the plan, when a refugee family indicated a desire to return to Afghanistan, they would not receive any funds in Pakistan because it was feared they might renege on their plan to return once they had the money, but they would be given Voluntary Repatriation Forms (VRFs) the VRCs in the area which they could encash from UNCHR offices in Afghanistan upon their return.

Encashment centres for this purpose were set up by the UNCHR at Kandahar and Jalalabad. As a part of the deal, once the refugees display their VRFS at the centres, the UNCHR staff gives them 150 US dollars as an incentive, along with 50 kilograms of wheat, blankets, tarpaulins, buckets, etc.

The problems began when a new mission was set up in Karachi in March, where the UNHCR identified about 0.7 million Afghan refugees who were potential repatriates. A Kenyan national, William Sakataka, was asked to the lead the mission.

Earlier, Sakataka was heading UNCHR operations in Quetta, but the agency had to remove him from there allegedly after complaints piled up against him sexual harassment of female workers of various NGOs working with the UNCHR. Although several reports had been filed at the UNHCR head office in Islamabad and at the agencyís headquarters in Geneva about Sakataís activities, it was the hue and cry raised over his attempted seduction of a local girl in Quetta, who happened to be related to a tribal chief, that prompted the UNCHR to evacuate Sakataka and send him back to Kenya.

Not long afterwards, however, the UNCHR set up its mission in Karachi, and he was recalled from Kenya to take it over. When Hasim Utkan, the UNCHR country chief was asked why the UNCHR had given charge of such an important mission to a man accused of serious offences, he responded, ìIt is the internal problem of the department.î

After UNCHR was office in Karachi set up it decided to seek assistance from local NGOs who had been working with the Afghan communities in Karachi. SHARP was provided a lucrative contract, and assistance was also sought from FOCUS, an NGO run by Agha Khanis which has been assisting Afghans mainly from Hazara, for the past several years, and the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC), an NGO run by Dr. Ruth Pfau, a German lady who has been working for the eradication of leprosy in Pakistan for many decades and has worked closely with Afghan refugees, FOCUS agreed to supply medical teams to thye VRCs free of cost, and MALC committed to assist the UNCHR in its repatriation drive.

Since the repatriation involves a long, arduous road journey, the UNHCR also awarded contracts to another NGO Health Vision, purported to be working in the health sector, to carry out medical check-ups of the returning refugees. According to plan, this NGO was to identify those who were healthy enough to travel, while those who were infirm in any way were to be provided treatment and sent on their way once they were fit to travel. This NGO was assigned to appoint its own staff for this project and was provided funds for this purpose and branded medicines to dispense to the refugees when required.

As the refugees started hearing about the incentives being provided to the refugees willing to repatriate, they started pouring in to the two repatriation centres set up in Sohrab Goth in Karachi, and the one in Hub in district Balochistan, bordering Karachi.

Given the numbers, which grew daily according to sources, staff members of SHARP soon realised what a goldmine the repatriation operation could be for them. Thereafter SHARP employees allegedly started demanding bribes from the refugees in return for VRFs. Furthermore, they forced the returning Afghans to take the mode of transport to Afghanistan they dictated to them, because by now they had also cut deals with the transporters plying the Pak-Afghanistan track. Normally the fare from Karachi to Quetta is 350 rupees and the cost for the charter of an air-conditioned coach is in the range of 10-15 thousand rupees. The refugees were made to pay between 20 and 30 thousand rupees for the latter.

According to sources, since the vehicles carrying the refugees were given a sort of ëdiplomatic immunityí because UNCHR had requested various provincial departments not to harass the passengers on their way back to Afghanistan, the transporters decided to start a smuggling operation alongside ferrying passengers. A few vehicles loaded with contraband items were, in fact, apprehended by Pakistani authorities at the border.

SHARP employees allegedly went even one further: professional Afghan smugglers were provided several sets of VRFs under fake names. They would buy commodities in Pakistan, travel to Afghanistan, sell them there encash their VRFs and return to Pakistan for further business. As a result, many genuine Afghan repatriating families with VRFs were made to wait for days at the encashment centres to have their credentials verified.

All this was happening in clear view ñ and it is reported in collusion with ñ UNHCR staff in Karachi. Even when some UNHCR officials did catch the SHARP staff red-handed while taking bribes from the refugees, no action was initiated against them. One example is that of Peter Kassier, a UNHCR official who, in his correspondence with another official, Jack Redden, mentioned that the UNHCR had caught SHARP employee at Takhtbaig in August demanding bribes from the refugees and warned them to desist from such malpractices. However, no action was taken against them.

Because of the increasing number of reports of irregularities, Ruth Pfanís NGO MALC, decided to distance itself from the repatriation project, making it clear that it could not accept the suffering of the refugees at the VRCs, due to the methods employed in the repatriation, which said Dr. Pfan, amounted to a breach of trust. In a letter to the UNHCRís Karachi mission Dr. Ruth Pfau wrote, ìAt present we are feeling [we are] being usedÖ We send [you] a group of people at our own expensesÖ We do trust that you will register them so that they get their 140 US dollarsÖ they have been waiting in Karachi for quite some time, putting up with quite some trouble, and I anyhow feel we donít compensate them even with a fraction for the harm and hardships we caused themÖ With the half of the information withheld from us today, I feel at the moment too insecure to continue to work with UNHCR so closely.î

While MALC refused to work with the UNHCRís Karachi mission, the other NGO, FOCUS, that had offered the repatriates free medical assistance, had its services unceremoniously dispensed with for no apparent reason, and the unknown and reportedly dubious outfit, Health Vision, was awarded the contract and huge funds placed at its disposal.

Sources disclose that this development owed to Sakatakaís increasingly cordial relationship with one Dr. Shafqat Soomro, a former employee of the provincial excise and taxation department who was dismissed from office because of corruption charges, Health Vision allegedly earned the contract from the UNHCR as a quid pro quo for ëservicesí Soomro provided to Sakataka. According to a letter that has been sent to the UNHCR head office at Islamabad and also to Geneva, Dr. Shafqat provided Sakataka an apartment in Clifton, access to various nightclubs and catered to his penchant for assorted nocturnal proclivities.

According to reports, after Sakataka deputed the latter to locate an NGO working in the health sector, Health Vision an NGO, that was earlier registered by one Dr. Sharif Thaheem, was identified, and Dr. Shafqat Soomro became its general secretary. Thereupon the FOCUS staff was given their marching orders by the Karachi office of the UNHRC and the contract was awarded to Health Vision for carrying out health operations at the centres for a nine month period.

In return, other than the funds which Health vision received to appoint new staff and for salaries, it was provided branded drugs which were to be distributed among the repatriates according to need.

From the outselt Health Vision reportedly reneged on its part of the deal. Instead of paying the medical staff salaries drawn up by the UNHCR, medical staff, the organisation appointed quacks in place of doctors, along with other unskilled paramedics for a fraction of the stipulated amount in direct contravention of its contract. Furthermore, the branded drugs allocated for the refugees, were sold in the open market by Health Vision, and substandard and unbranded drugs were supplied to the returnees instead.

Interestingly, many doctors working on the project apprised the UNHCR monitoring staff in Karachi about the state of affairs, but instead of initiating action against Health Vision, the agency sacked the doctors from their jobs. One of the victims of this travesty, Dr. Mohammed Ashfaq Shaikh, found himself out of a job when he complained to the UNHCR staff about Health Visionís ongoing malpractices, even though it was in confidence. The information was apparently leaked to the NGO who saw to it that the doctor was fired.

In addition to the host of malpractices by the NGOs, the repatriation exercise has been made even harder because of the role of many refugees themselves. According to UN officials, they have rejected claims by some 50,000 refugee families, because they were trying to qualify for basic assistance more than once.

Nonetheless, UNHCR country chief, Hasim Utkan in Pakistan, claims that they hav so far repatriated 1.6 million refugees to Afghanistan in the last few months. However, this figure includes repatriates from Iran as well, another country that has played host to the Afghans for many years. The UNHCR chief bases his claims of the number of repatriates on the number of VRFs that have been disbursed. According to insiders, the actual figure of those who have genuinely returned to Afghanistan permanently does not exceed 500,000.

In a meeting held on June 2, the UNHCR admitted that the performance of the staff at the VRCs is unsatisfactory and unskilled staff has been appointed at these centres, but no action was taken against anyone. However, when complaints piled up against the Karachi operation, sources disclosed the UNHCR sent a special mission from Islamabad, headed by Marc Andre Bunzli, who is serving as senior technical coordinator for the agency. After investigation Bunzli filed a detailed report about the affairs of the NGOs working with the UNHCR, and he Karachi the mission agreed to address the allegations levelled against Health Vision, and also against some members of the UNHCR staff.

Information about the sorry state of affairs leaked to the public when office-bearers of SHARP, the other NGO involved in the registration and repatriation drive, fell out with each other and started to air their dirty linen in public.

In a meeting of the members of the Central Executive Comittee of SHARP, held on September 10, chairman Liaqat Binori was dismissed from his paost for his involvement in massive corruption. A copy of the minutes of this meeting were sent to the UNHCR, and also to assorted banks asking them to close SHARPís accounts to investigate the financial irregularities that had occurred. Asif Qadri was appointed the new chairman of SHARP.

Suprisingly, thereafter Liaquat Binori issued a press statement saying the differences within SHARP had been sorted out amicably. Accordingto the statement. ìMr. Asif Qadir resigns from the chairmanship of SHARP and Mr. Liaqat will remains functioning as its chairman.î A copy of the new ëresolution,í submitted by Binori to the press, action taken by anybody at any forum, including UNHCR/Standard Grindlays Bank, the Registration Authority, etc., [against SHARP] stands cancelled and withdrawn with immediate effect.

While UNHCR officials refuse to comment on the situation, the Sindh home department has issued a letter to UNHCR, inquiring about irregularities by SHARP and Health Vision ñ UNHCRís two implementing partners ñ who stand accused of causing manifold administrative problems for the provincial government. The home department has demanded that the UNHCR form a speaicl task force to invesgate the matter properly. ìMay I also avail this opportunity to reiterate our desire to review the implemeting partners presently working with UNHCR in [its] Karachi operation, as there have been reports that the implementing partner, namely Health Vision, is involved in many irregularities and providing substandard services to returnees,î reads the letter written by Nasrullah Larik, a deputy secretary of the provincial home department.

Insiders disclose that the UNHCR head office in Pakistan is trying to hush up the case because it has been claiming to its headquarters in Geneva that its repatriation project has been successful.

When questioned about the situation, UNHCR country chief, Hasim Utkan contended that while there have been many reports of irregularities, he had not received any concrete evidence which could lead the agency to take action against any of those accused. However, the maintained all allegations are currently under review by the UNHCR, and appropriate action will be taken if and when deemed necessary.