Long­time Afghan refugees de­ported, face un­cer­tain fu­ture


LAHORE, PAK­ISTAN | Makeshift refugee set­tle­ments have sprouted up on the bar­ren stretch of the Afghanistan desert that ex­tends east to­ward the bustling city of Jalal­abad, about an hour’s drive from the bor­der with Pak­istan.

It’s here in a for­bid­ding en­vi­ron­ment that Ja­mal Juma, an Afghan man in his 60s, and his fam­ily of 12 have fash­ioned a tem­po­rary home — a hand­made hut of mud.

Like many of his neigh­bors in the set­tle­ments, Mr. Juma was kicked out of Pak­istan five months ago af­ter liv­ing in the coun­try as a refugee for the past quar­ter-cen­tury.

“We had shops and small busi­nesses,” he said, “but the po­lice and other se­cu­rity forces forced us to leave.”

Now back in his na­tive land, Mr. Juma has few op­tions. Although he owns a mod­est swath of land in the lush moun­tain­ous foothills of Bagh­lan prov­ince in north­east­ern Afghanistan, vi­o­lence in that region has forced him to set­tle near Kabul.

“Here, life is very tough — no wa­ter, liv­ing in a very cold mud house,” said Mr. Juma, adding that he is now nearly pen­ni­less af­ter build­ing his hut. “We don’t have any­thing. What to do? The [Afghan] gov­ern­ment should help us.”

His plight is the di­rect con­se­quence of a mo­men­tous move by the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment to ad­dress one of the world’s big­gest refugee crises, which can trace its roots back to the Afghan mu­ja­hedeen re­sis­tance to the Soviet Union’s in­va­sion dur­ing the Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion. Last sum­mer, Pak­istan an­nounced plans to be­gin de­port­ing many of the roughly 3 mil­lion Afghan refugees liv­ing in

the coun­try with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion in bor­der ar­eas.

Pak­istan re­sumed the repa­tri­a­tion af­ter a win­ter break, send­ing some 1,200 peo­ple across a heav­ily po­liced bor­der cross­ing, the U.N. re­ported Mon­day. Is­lam­abad closed the bor­der in Fe­bru­ary af­ter a num­ber of cross-bor­der strikes blamed for the deaths of 130 peo­ple, an­nounc­ing at the time that it had be­gun plan­ning for a fence along the 1,510-mile bor­der be­tween the two coun­tries.

The Afghan refugees in Pak­istan strain so­cial ser­vices and spark re­sent­ment in a coun­try al­ready fac­ing mas­sive eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal ten­sions. Pak­istani authorities have of­ten re­sorted to abuse, im­pris­on­ment and threats of vi­o­lence while driv­ing more than 600,000 refugees out of the coun­try since June, ac­cord­ing to a re­port is­sued last month by Hu­man Rights Watch.

About 10,000 Afghans have re­turned from Pak­istan this year, ac­cord­ing to a sit­u­a­tion re­port re­leased this month by the United Na­tions In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion.

The num­ber of forced repa­tri­a­tions is expected to in­crease this spring. Hu­man Rights Watch es­ti­mated that more than 1 mil­lion Afghans liv­ing in Pak­istan would even­tu­ally re­turn to Afghanistan.

The big worry is what awaits those re­turn­ing home and whether the even more frag­ile Afghan econ­omy can ab­sorb the in­flux.

The gov­ern­ment in Kabul has few safe havens to har­bor those new­com­ers. The coun­try is com­bat­ing hous­ing short­ages, a crum­bling econ­omy, rife po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, the Tal­iban’s po­tent mil­i­tary in­sur­gency and a grow­ing pres­ence of the Is­lamic State.

The in­flux of re­turnees will only worsen the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of Afghanistan’s strained in­sti­tu­tions, said Lau­rence Hart, the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion’s chief of mis­sion in Afghanistan.

“They were al­ready vul­ner­a­ble be­fore with the in­creas­ing num­ber of ar­rivals. This puts a lot of bur­den on the health and ed­u­ca­tional ser­vices, wa­ter, nu­tri­tion,” Mr. Hart said, adding that a tem­po­rary so­lu­tion needs to be found to help re­turnees.

Scram­bling for a plan

Afghan of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge that they are still scram­bling to de­velop a plan to some­how ac­com­mo­date the hun­dreds of thou­sands expected to ar­rive this year.

“This was some­thing un­prece­dented,” said Edris Lutfi, Afghanistan’s na­tional mi­gra­tion co­or­di­na­tor for the coun­try’s chief ex­ec­u­tive. The gov­ern­ment “didn’t think the numbers would be this high for the re­turnees.”

Even Ger­many, with a mod­ern so­cial safety net and one of the world’s largest economies, strug­gled to build ac­com­mo­da­tions for some of the over 1 mil­lion in­di­vid­u­als who sought asy­lum in the coun­try since 2015. Two years later, thou­sands are still due to re­ceive per­ma­nent hous­ing.

“A coun­try with the size and econ­omy of Ger­many could only build 50,000 hous­ing units for the refugees and mi­grants that went there,” Mr. Lutfi said. “For Afghanistan, it will take years to ac­com­mo­date these peo­ple.”

For would-be refugees like Gul Bibi, a 56-year-old Afghan mother of five liv­ing on the out­skirts of Lahore, Pak­istan is the only home she has ever known. She fled Afghanistan in 1979 af­ter the Soviet in­va­sion when she was 19. Her fam­ily fled again from Pak­istan af­ter be­ing ha­rassed by po­lice.

“Af­ter the re­cent at­tacks in Lahore, the po­lice raided our colony and picked up my sons along with sev­eral other men from the com­mu­nity,” she said in ref­er­ence to the Feb. 13 suicide at­tack that killed 14 peo­ple.

“For decades, this has been our home — I got mar­ried here, raised my fam­ily here and now Pak­istan wants us to leave,” she said. “We are go­ing back to Afghanistan, but with a heavy heart. We will never for­get how we were mal­treated.”

For or­di­nary Pak­ista­nis, the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion re­mains di­vi­sive. Some Pak­ista­nis see Afghan refugee set­tle­ments as hot­beds of ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity. But oth­ers sym­pa­thize with those who must leave af­ter liv­ing their en­tire lives in Pak­istan and con­tribut­ing eco­nom­i­cally and so­cially to the coun­try.

“Be­ing a mother my­self, I feel for the refugees, es­pe­cially the young chil­dren stand­ing in long queues [to get a res­i­dence per­mit] with nowhere to go,” said Shehnila Daniyal, a 38-year-old Pak­istani home­maker from Lahore. “It’s re­ally sad that we are do­ing this to our Mus­lim brothers and sis­ters.”

Hu­man Rights Watch ac­cused the U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees of turn­ing a blind eye to the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment’s an­nounce­ment and the plight of the dis­placed Afghans.

“UNHCR failed to en­sure that refugees were fully in­formed of the con­di­tions to which they were re­turn­ing be­fore de­cid­ing to leave,” Hu­man Rights Watch as­serted in a re­cent re­port that crit­i­cized a U.N. cash grant of up to $400 as an in­cen­tive for refugees to re­turn to Afghanistan. U.N. of­fi­cials re­ject the claims. Hu­man Rights Watch was also wor­ried that other ar­eas, most no­tably the Euro­pean Union, will fol­low the lead of Pak­istan, forcibly repa­tri­at­ing tens of thou­sands of Afghans who have ap­plied for refugee sta­tus while flee­ing the in­sta­bil­ity and de­pri­va­tion of their home­land, putting even more pres­sure on Kabul. Ger­many, for in­stance, has be­gun de­port­ing asy­lum seek­ers de­nied per­ma­nent visas back to Afghanistan, which it has re­clas­si­fied as a safe coun­try of ori­gin.

Some who have re­turned say it’s a mixed bless­ing.

“For the first time in twenty-five years, I came back to my coun­try,” Mr. Juma said. “De­spite all the dif­fi­cul­ties here since com­ing from Pak­istan, I am still happy to live in my own coun­try.”


UN­SET­TLED: Afghan refugee fam­i­lies line up out­side the gov­ern­ment reg­is­tra­tion office in Pe­shawar, Pak­istan, to re­ceive pa­pers to re­turn to Afghanistan. The Pak­istani gov­ern­ment has made a mo­men­tous move to ad­dress one of the world’s big­gest refugee crises, which has lasted decades.

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