Afghan refugees say short deadline make their return difficult

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  • Most refugees hesitant to return Afghanistan due to insecurity, lack of economic prospects

  • Afghans believe returning to Afghanistan will be like a ‘new migration’ all over

PESHAWAR/KABUL: For the past several decades, millions of Afghans have fled their conflict-stricken Afghanistan to Pakistan in search of a safer and better life, and local and foreign organisations show an estimated 2.7 million registered and undocumented refugees in Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s failure so far to emerge as a stable and peaceful country means there is no safe place for these refugees to return to. Notwithstanding the security situation in its neighbour, the Pakistan government wants to accelerate refugee repatriation. At the start of January, the federal cabinet under Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi decided to extend refugees’ stay only for 30 days.

This is the sixth extension given to the refugees by the government. It argued that the economy has carried the burden of hosting these refugees since long and in the present circumstances cannot sustain it further. The decision comes as surprise for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which is undertaking a repatriation programme.

There are also hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans residing in the country. The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) has reported that between November 19 and 25, thousands of undocumented Afghan refugees returned to Afghanistan from Iran. It said that the mass-migration is being caused by deteriorating protection space in Iran.

This is not the first time the government in Islamabad has announced moves to repatriate Afghan refugees from Pakistan. But they have never been carried out in full, partly due to the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan where the conflict displaced as many as 360,000 people last year alone, according to the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA).

The number of armed clashes with militants was also the highest in the past decade, an OCHA report said. The Afghan government is fighting a resilient insurgency and efforts to reach a peace deal with the main insurgent group have come to nought. Furthermore, the self-styled Islamic State outfit has been attempting to expand its presence in Afghanistan.

The group has killed hundreds of Afghans in multiple attacks across the country since it first emerged in the region in 2014. In the past 18 months, as a US-led bombing campaign against the group gathered momentum, it dramatically escalated its attacks in Kabul, adding to the dangers already faced by civilians in the city, which the UN cites as one of the deadliest places in the country.

Last August, US President Donald Trump unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan, vowing to deploy more troops, on top of the 11,000 already in the country, to train and advise Afghan security forces. The worsening state of security has prompted many Afghan returnees to once again flee their homeland and seek safety elsewhere.

“Only if all sides keep their promises will Afghan refugees be able to return to their homeland. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s possible for us to return,” said Jamil Khan Azizi, a 25-year-old refugee, while referring to promises made by the Kabul government that it would provide land and financial aid to its citizens returning to the country voluntarily.

In many cases, these promises haven’t been kept, he said. Azizi, who has spent most of his life in Pakistan, stressed that returning to Afghanistan would be like a new migration all over again, as most of the Afghans living in Pakistan have been residing in that country for decades. They are now a fixture in the local communities and many have even set up businesses.

“I have pending checks which I can only cash in 2021. If I am deported, I won’t be able to get my money back. People will lose millions,” said Shafiqullah Azimi who has a small business and claims to lose money if expelled in such a short period of time. The businessman is also worried that if returned to Afghanistan, he would lose access to the Pakistani market.

These concerns are compounded by the underperformance of the Afghan economy, with growth rates suffering under the combined assault of diminished international financial aid flows in the aftermath of NATO’s drawdown of troops and worsening security. The construction sector, previously a major driver of economic growth, has been weighed down by a lack of substantial investment in infrastructure over the past couple of years.

This has left the Afghan economy in the lurch. “We have done research about the Afghan market and know that business there will not be as good as it is in Pakistan,” Azimi said. Combined with insecurity, the lack of economic prospects has been a reason why most Afghan refugees are hesitant to return home.

Even many of those who have returned hoping for a fresh start have become disillusioned with the country’s political, economic and security situation, and are considering fleeing again either to neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran or even to places as far as Europe. Azimi said that he knew many people who had regretted their decision to return to Afghanistan.

Despite the problems, many acknowledge that Afghan refugees are living in far better conditions in Pakistan than in other countries like Iran, which is also home to millions of Afghans. In Pakistan, most Afghans have been able to join schools and universities as well as open businesses. They are also able to travel relatively easily between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Against this backdrop, the latest decision by the government is seen as a reaction to growing international pressure on Islamabad to take action against Afghan militant groups allegedly operating from the country’s soil. Pakistan’s political and military establishment is deeply unhappy about the recent pronouncements of the US president, who accused Islamabad of providing sanctuary to militant groups.

“Unfortunately the issue of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is being politicised from time to time,” said Abdul Hamid Jalili, an Afghan Consulate official in Peshawar. Everybody understands that deporting over two million Afghan refugees in less than a month will not be possible, but the deadline was still set to create a mechanism for all Afghans to return, he said.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Yeah, they come to our country and eat our children in schools. They come to our country and the US drones comes & kill them. Deport them ! It is a conspiracy against us ! These Afghan refugees, Radio Mashal & Anti Pakistan syllabus for Afghan refugees are all a part of CIA’s hybrid & psychological warfare.

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