Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 June 2019

Afghan refugees return to an uncertain future in the homeland they no longer know

After decades in exile in Pakistan, Afghans feel like strangers in their own land. And the war they ran from is still going on.
Repatriated Afghan refugee children travelling on a packed lorry entering Pakistan at the Torkham border crossing on September 7, 2016. A Majeed / AFP
Repatriated Afghan refugee children travelling on a packed lorry entering Pakistan at the Torkham border crossing on September 7, 2016. A Majeed / AFP

TORKHAM, PAKISTAN // Mohammad Anwar arrived in Pakistan as a child more than 35 years ago but he is leaving as a father. His family is among the thousands of uprooted Afghan refugees “returning” to a war-torn homeland many of them have never seen.

He has packed his possessions on to a brightly-painted lorry but says he is leaving his heart and soul in Peshawar, the city that sheltered him for decades.

“We can’t forget the time we passed here, we were treated like brothers,” he said. “Insha’Allah, we will come here again, this time with passports.”

Pakistan has provided a safe haven for decades for millions like MrAnwar, who fled Afghanistan with his family when he was just seven years old, after the Soviet invasion of 1979.

But as resistance against the Soviets morphed into civil war, Taliban rule, the US invasion and the grinding conflict in Afghanistan today, even Pakistan’s famed hospitality has run out.

Pakistan is host to 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, according to the UNHCR, making it the third-largest refugee-hosting nation in the world. The UNHCR also estimates there are a further one million unregistered refugees in the country.

Since 2009, Islamabad has repeatedly pushed back a deadline for them to return, but the fear now is that the latest cut-off date in March 2017 will be final.

Meanwhile refugees are increasingly worried about their future in Pakistan amid a security crackdown against undocumented foreigners.

The anxiety, combined with a UN decision to double cash grants for refugees returning voluntarily from $200 to $400 per individual in June, has seen the flow of refugees over the border become a torrent.

More than 200,000 have been repatriated from Pakistan this year, nearly half of them in September alone, — the highest number since America toppled the Taliban in 2002. On Monday, the European Union announced a provisional deal for Afghanistan to take back migrants ahead of a conference in Brussels aimed at securing aid for the country.

Back on the outskirts of Peshawar, Mr Anwar fills out documents at a UNHCR centre crammed with men in Afghan caps and turbans and veiled women fanning their children lying on the floor. They face an uncertain future in an Afghanistan still at war and already so overwhelmed by displaced people that officials warn of a humanitarian crisis.

But first they will pass the Torkham frontier, a mountainous outpost where — until this year — border “controls” were no more than of a suggestion, and thousands crossed each day with impunity. But in June, the border post acquired a gleaming new gate, a two-kilometre barbed wire fence and scanning machines for customs.

Pakistani pride in the new facilities contrasted with tearful Afghan refugees piling their lorries high not just with household goods, but also cattle, tree trunks and scraps that could help build even a mud hut once they reach Afghanistan.

“We spent our best time here,” said 45-year-old Khair Muhammad, returning after 36 years with 21 members of his family and a lorry laden with beds, fans, timber and a cow and her calf. .

With a resurgent Taliban in control of roughly one third of Afghanistan’s districts, many returning refugees will travel no further than Kabul. Among them is Abdhur Rahman, who left for Pakistan 30 years ago, fleeing a province which is now under attack by the Taliban. Now aged 70 with a white beard, he is returning as patriarch of a family of 25.

But the former anti-Soviet fighter from Paktia in the east will find little support in the overstretched capital. Kabul ‘s population is expanding by 1,200 a day, says European Union ambassador Franz-Michael Mellbin.

The UN put the number of displaced people in the city last month at 265,000, and in 2013 the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) documented 53 informal settlements, consisting of little more than timber clinging to mountainsides with neither water nor electricity.

Abdhur Rahman says his last days in Pakistan were marked by police harassment. “They cut the water and electricity in the camp ... it was better to leave.” Another returnee, Sayed Karim, has lived for months in Kabul “without water, no school, no doctor”. Trapped in limbo between the closed gates at Torkham and the fighting in his home province of Baghlan, he looks back fondly on his days as a teacher in the refugee camp in Pakistan.

“In Pakistan we had good work. A good life,” he says.

* Agence France-Presse

Updated: October 5, 2016 04:00 AM