Afghan refugees leaving Pakistan for home – but there’s little to return to
A young child peeks out from a tent in an informal camp in Kabul set up by Afghan migrants who have recently returned from Pakistan. Many Afghans in Pakistan report a campaign of harassment aimed at pressuring them to return to Afghanistan.
KABUL — Behind the court rulings and loud pronouncements about mass expulsions, harassment of Afghan migrants by Pakistani authorities is causing a steady stream of returnees with the potential to become a human flood, swamping Afghanistan’s already shaky social services.
These returnees are largely poor. Many have been in Pakistan for decades and have nothing to return to in their native villages, so they turn to Afghanistan’s cities. Makeshift squatter settlements have sprung up in places like Kabul.
Pakistan has been threatening mass deportations in recent weeks, saying it will expel 400,000 unregistered Afghan migrants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. A court ruling in Peshawar last month called for the immediate ouster of the 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
In total, there are estimated to be 3 million displaced Afghans living in Pakistan, whose government has recently threatened wholesale expulsion by the end of the year — a potential disaster for Afghanistan.
The deadline for the expulsion has been pushed back twice, and it’s unclear whether Pakistan will make good on any of its threats. But recent returnees and officials say, behind the scenes, Pakistani authorities are putting the squeeze on Afghans in an attempt to push them to leave “voluntarily.”
Random arrests, demands for bribes, phone calls in the middle of the night and evictions are some of the methods described by recent returnees, and it’s gotten so bad that Afghanistan seems like a peaceful alternative.
Ilija Todorovic, deputy representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said these tactics have become commonplace in Pakistan. There has also been a recent uptick in harassment of Afghan refugees with government and security forces connections.
“They pressure them out,” Todorovic said.
Afghanistan already struggles to deal with the estimated 400,000 Afghans displaced within the country and is not prepared for a major influx, he said. About 5.7 million Afghans have returned to the country since the U.S. invasion in 2001. With official unemployment at 35 percent — many think real joblessness is even higher — returnees face bleak employment prospects.
“It could put a lot of pressure on the urban areas for work,” he said. “There’s the possibility you have a lot of unemployed, unskilled people.”
Jobs are likely to get more scarce as international militaries and aid organizations scale down operations in the country.
“Security has been the best provider of jobs,” Todorovic said.
For Atiq Mohammed, his first weeks back in the country he left as a boy have been miserable. Graying, with a deeply lined face that looks a decade older than his 37 years, he languishes in a fly-ridden tent in Kabul, sharing the roughly 10-by-10-foot space with his wife and 10 children. Only one of the children attends school, and the small encampment where he lives — mostly inhabited by returnees with similar circumstances — lacks water and electricity.
After a campaign of bribe-taking, detention and threats of imprisonment in Peshawar, Pakistan, where he had lived since his family fled the Soviet-Afghan war 30 years ago, Mohammed’s last straw came when authorities ordered his landlord to evict unregistered Afghans.
Thrown out of his apartment onto the street, he brought his family to Kabul, saying he had nothing to return to in his native Laghman province. The former baker and ice cream seller is illiterate and has been unable to find work in Kabul.
“I just borrow money and survive,” he said.
While there are doubts that Pakistan will follow through on its threats for mass expulsions, Afghanistan got a possible glimpse into that future in 2011 when about 18,000 Afghans originally from Nangarhar province were expelled from Pakistan. Nearly every one returned to Nangarhar, swamping the local government services and causing tension in the province.
Now, the Afghan government is trying to get ahead of the next possible flood of returnees with a three-year plan to build “townships” with schools, roads and water to replace the squalid tent camps where many returnees now live.
“We are trying to settle them inside the community,” said Afghan Minister of Refugees and Repatriation Jamaher Anwari.
The Afghan government has been working with agencies like the International Organization for Migration to persuade the Pakistani government to send undocumented migrants back gradually. The latest negotiations are for a test run of 50,000 migrants, said IOM spokeswoman Aanchal Kurana.
“(The government) cannot handle them all at once,” she said.
But there are no guarantees with the mercurial officials in Islamabad, and so aid workers must also work on contingency plans for mass expulsions.
“Possibility is the important word here,” Khurana said. “We don’t know if it will happen but should it happen we want to be prepared.”
For returnees like Abdul Jabar Muhsan, these negotiations are too late. Three weeks ago, he saw his ancestral homeland for the first time.
The 23-year-old left Pakistan for Kabul with 11 family members late last month and has been unable to find steady employment. He gets occasional work as a delivery driver, which he said barely covers his fees at the Maiwand Institute of Higher Education, where he is studying computer science.
Police on the street sometimes question him, suspicious of his beard, and he struggles as the only breadwinner for his family, all of whom cram into a four-bedroom apartment. They’ve received no help from the Afghan government.
Despite all of that, he is happy to be away from his birthplace, Peshawar, where he said he was constantly harassed by Pakistani authorities.
Last year, he was thrown in jail for no reason, he said, and the police threatened to imprison him for three months and hand him over to the feared Pakistani intelligence service unless he paid 4,000 Pakistani rupees (about $42). It was a large sum for Muhsan, but he agreed and vowed to leave.
“That’s why I decided to come back to my own country and live in peace,” he said.