- The Washington Times - Monday, November 11, 2002

PESHAWAR, Pakistan Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have defrauded the United Nations of millions of dollars in repatriation allowances by pretending to return to Afghanistan, according to the findings of an investigation revealed last week.
Staff of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees discovered that almost a third of the Afghans who left the main repatriation center in Peshawar to return home had doubled back into Pakistan after receiving their allotted money and provisions.
Some refugees had crossed the border as many as 10 times since the repatriation program was started in March. Others had hired women and children to act as family members in order to increase the benefits they received.
The numbers are so high that the UNHCR has now introduced eye-recognition technology to catch the so-called "recyclers" the first time such an identification process has been used for refugees. Investigators found that once offenders had crossed the border to a collection point a journey of several hours by vehicle and had received allowances of between $10 and $30 per family member, depending on their destination, plus wheat, blankets and plastic sheeting, they turned around, sometimes walking for eight hours.
"We were getting refugees crossing twice, thrice or even 10 times," said Richard Ndaula, the supervisor of Takhta Baig repatriation center, just outside Peshawar. "They'd simply change vehicles and family members and come back again."
To a Western aid worker, it may seem like a lot of trouble for little reward, but to the Afghan refugees, it's worth it, he said. "If they get $100 and spend $20 of that in transport, then they've made $80, which is more than a month's salary."
The situation has been further complicated because many more Afghans have crossed back into their country than anticipated, partly because Pakistan which has housed about 3 million refugees while neighboring Afghanistan has suffered almost a quarter of a century of conflict has bulldozed two of the main displacement camps.
"We had expected around 400,000 refugees to return to Afghanistan between March and December," Mr. Ndaula said. "Instead, we've had 1.6 million going back."
Because so many of these refugees have simply returned to Pakistan, UNHCR officials believe that the number of those who have stayed in Afghanistan could be as few as 600,000.
At the Takhta Baig center, 43,389 families 28 percent of the camp's population turned out to be recyclers.
The tide of people has not halted, even though Afghanistan's harsh winter is setting in. The vehicle park at Takhta Baig is packed by 7 a.m. each day with lines of trucks and buses piled high with refugees' belongings.
Before they can register, each family has to pose for a photograph for UNHCR records and is interviewed by U.N. officials.
One man, Khyber Khan, who posed in front of an old box camera with his burqa-clad wife and five children, said he was going back to Jalalabad after 16 years in Pakistan. "We hope it will be safe now and that we will get help to rebuild our house," he said.
UNHCR officials began to realize that a recycling swindle was under way when staff started to recognize refugees' faces. They questioned some of the children and found they had been hired on the road.
Further investigation revealed that many of the supposedly returning refugees were part of a fraud organized by truck drivers, who were paying their passengers a nominal amount, then taking the allowances for themselves.
Other refugees, living in rented property in Pakistan, were being sent by their landlords, who demanded the repatriation benefits as rent.
UNHCR officials have now brought in iris-recognition devices that have been used successfully in Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj to Mecca to stop pilgrims remaining illegally in the country.
Refugees must now enter a booth and have their right eye photographed women lifting their burqas to expose their eyes to the computer monitor.
"It is the most foolproof identification there is," said Martin Toms, an information technology consultant from Bio ID Technologies, which installed the system.
One refugee woman said the machines saved her life. "My husband has been forcing me and our eight children to go back and forth, returning on foot so that we don't spend money on transport, and I'm very tired," she told Mr. Toms.
One unexpected difficulty is the number of refugees who have lost one or even both eyes in rocket attacks.
"It's still hard for us to stop blind recyclers," Mr. Toms conceded.

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