“It would be like throwing us into the sea.”
Afghan refugees started arriving in Pakistan in the 1980s, fleeing the Soviet invasion, and have continued to come here to escape the horrors of a civil war, Taliban rule and, most recently, the conflict triggered by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Whole generations have grown up in Pakistan and don’t know their homeland. There are 1.7 million Afghan refugees registered in Pakistan – more than half of them younger than 18 – of which 630,000 live in camps. A further 1 million are estimated to be living in the country unregistered and therefore illegally.
The international community and the Afghan government in Kabul have no strategy prepared to deal with any such influx of people. The anxiety over taking back the refugees seems to belie the claims of progress in Afghanistan that the U.S.-led international coalition makes regularly.
“If the international community is so concerned, they should open the doors of their countries to these refugees,” Khan said. “Afghans will be more than happy to be absorbed by the developed countries, like Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia.”
Khan said that after Dec. 31, the Pakistani government didn’t plan to renew Afghan refugees’ registration cards, so those currently registered will lose their refugee status. He declined to spell out what would happen to the refugees after that, but if the policy sticks they’d be in the country illegally and liable to be deported.
Some Afghans have prospered in Pakistan – as seen by their near takeover of Hayatabad, an upscale suburb lined with villas outside Peshawar, a northwestern city close to the Afghan border – but the majority of them struggle.
And as their numbers have grown, Pakistani officials suspect that the leadership of the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups is hiding among the refugees. The western Pakistani city of Quetta is home to the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s leadership council, and it contains a sprawling Afghan refugee settlement that provides easy cover for militants.
A U.N. voluntary repatriation program is making slow progress. So far this year it’s been able to entice only 41,000 people to return to Afghanistan, a slight increase over the 35,000 who returned in the first half of last year. Since 2002, the U.N. has repatriated 3.7 million Afghans to the country, but the rate stalled in recent years as the war intensified. It’s also likely that many of the returnees have slipped back into Pakistan, given that there are almost as many Afghan refugees in Pakistan today as there were in 2002.
Earlier this year, Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian affairs chief, visited a camp in Kabul and said its conditions for returning refugees appalled her. Once they reach Afghanistan, returnees are entitled to a one-time payment of $150 per person from the U.N.
Neill Wright, the Pakistan representative of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the U.N. would still recognize the registered Afghans in Pakistan as refugees after this year under international law “until a durable solution can be found.”
“We hope that the government of Pakistan will continue to recognize them as refugees,” Wright said. “Returning them to Afghanistan could destabilize the country further at a time when it is already experiencing instability from the drawdown of international forces.”