Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May 2016, 11:51 GMT

Afghan refugees reluctant to leave Pakistan

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Abubakar Siddique
Publication Date 26 March 2007
Cite as EurasiaNet, Afghan refugees reluctant to leave Pakistan, 26 March 2007, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Abubakar Siddique 3/26/07

As he prepared to return to his homeland after 15 years as a refugee, Hazratullah, a native of Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province, was more anxious than happy. "I don't have a house there and I don't know if I will find any work," he told EurasiaNet about his fears. His concerns reflected the fact that he was a reluctant returnee amid a push by Pakistani officials and international non-governmental organization representatives to promote repatriation.

Hazratullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, was among the first refugees in northwestern Pakistan's Peshawar city to take up a fresh repatriation assistance offer by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For him, the decision to return was shaped more by circumstances beyond his control than by individual initiative. "I can't go around the city because the police will arrest me. I can't find any work so I had no choice but to leave," he said, standing next to his wife and eight children. Their possessions were loaded on a small maroon truck.

Hazratullah earned up to $2 a day whenever he found work as a day laborer mostly in construction. He sees little hope of finding work in his native Deh Bala district of Nangarhar, where the pace of reconstruction is lagging. The years of strain make Hazratullah look far older than his 35 years.

He and his family members are among those who missed an opportunity to obtain Pakistani-government-issued Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, which grants Afghans living in Pakistan three more years of temporary stay. While some 2.1 million Afghan received the cards, it is estimated that over 200,000 missed the opportunity, and they have until mid-April to take advantage of UNHCR's repatriation assistance. The UN agency is providing cash grants to returnees of up to US$ 100 per person.

According to UNHCR figures, 2.8 million Afghans have repatriated with the agency's help since 2002. An additional 300,000 are estimated to have returned without any aid. Still, an array of issues keeps some Afghans from going back home. This year, the repatriation pace started off slowly, but it appears that it is picking up as the weather grows warmer. So far, 18,000 Afghans have returned, according to the official figures compiled as of March 23.

By the end of this summer, the Pakistan government plans to close four refugee camps near the Afghan border, housing a total of 250,000 Afghans. Most of the roughly seven dozen refugee camps in Pakistan are, in effect, overcrowded villages, featuring mud houses and dirt streets. After years in the camps, most residents appear to be well settled. In addition, a large number of Afghans, perhaps a majority of refugees, have found living quarters outside of the camps. Regardless of where they live, most have adapted to their current living conditions, and are thus reluctant to leave.

"A lot of refugees have undergone lifestyle changes. They are used to urban life, electricity and they cannot find that in their places of origin," said Habibullah, a Peshawar-based human rights activist who had studied refugee issues closely. "Pakistan offers more economic stability, and they do not have to pay any taxes."

It's not unusual now for Afghan extended families to have members living both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan – an arrangement that helps everyone cope with the ongoing economic and political uncertainty.

Bookseller and printer Asadullah Danish is one such Afghan. While his bothers and parents live in Afghanistan, he has lived in a rented house in Peshawar for a quarter century. His tiny office in the dark allies of Peshawar's historic Qisa Khwani Bazar is a major supplier of literary books to Afghans everywhere.

While his children go to local schools, Danish's business attracts considerable local clientele from among the local ethnic Pashtuns who buy his Pashto-language publications. "People can kill you [inside Afghanistan] and nobody asks any questions," he said of his primary reason for not retuning to his native Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan, the scene of sporadic violence between rival warlords. "People [staying back] have businesses and they want to stay back for education [of their children]."

The timing for a major repatriation push is not fortuitous, some refugee advocates contend. "For the repatriation to be sustainable; there needs to be a pull factor," Mariam Khan, a field coordinator looking after Afghan refugees with the New York-based International Rescue Committee, told EurasiaNet. "There is a range of problems – finding jobs, running water, electricity, healthcare, and land disputes."

If anything, the push factor in Afghanistan seems to be gaining strength. With over 4,000 combatant and civilian deaths, 2006 was the most violent year in Afghanistan since 2001.

Officials from Afghanistan, United States and some of its NATO allies tend to attribute the rising violence to the presence of Taliban sanctuaries in the Pakistan's western borderlands. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Pakistan, meanwhile, blames the large numbers of Afghan refugees for stoking violence and insecurity. "The problem of cross-border militancy is closely related to the presence of over 3 million Afghan refugees.... The Taliban militants are able to blend in with these refugees, making their detection more difficult," Pakistan's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Munir Akram, said during a UN Security Council session in January. "We would like to see all Afghan refugees repatriated to Afghanistan as soon as possible."

The four-month-long PoR process that ended in February seemed rooted in such security calculations. As part of the program, Afghans were given picture identity cards while their biometrics, including finger prints and facial features, were saved into computer databases.

For those Afghans remaining in Pakistan, economic survival remains the top priority. "Security figures far behind the issues of land, shelter and livelihoods," UNHCR's Assistant Representative in Pakistan, Kilian Kleinschmidt told EurasiaNet.

Since the 1979 Soviet invasion, most estimates placed the number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan at 3 million. However, a Pakistani government census in 2005 suggested that the actual number of Afghans who fled their homeland was much higher. That survey counted 3 million Afghans in Pakistan in 2005, despite the repatriation of over 2 million Afghans over the previous three years. Another 582,000 refugees have repatriated since the census was completed. Overall, up to 5.5 million Afghans have returned to their homeland since 2001 from Pakistan and Iran – two countries hosting the largest refugee populations – making it the largest repatriation in UNHCR's 55-year history.

"Basically everyone was inventing figures," said Kleinschmidt, whose adds that UNHCR and the Pakistani government now estimate the number of Afghan nationals in Pakistan at around 2.4 million.

Editor's Note: Abubakar Siddique is EurasiaNet's Afghanistan correspondent.

Posted March 26, 2007 © Eurasianet

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