As the world gets busy with other global events, IDPs and other refugees in neighbouring countries are either making their way back, or are being forcefully returned, to Afghanistan. Nafees Ahmad discusses the process of return, and how several Afghans, long resident in other countries and now deprived of almost all their possessions, are slowly re-embracing everyday persecution in their own country.
Following the decades-long combat in Afghanistan ending in 2021 with the Taliban takeover of power, there has been a noticeable improvement in civilian casualties and overall stability, which has, in turn, allowed for some humanitarian aid to reach provinces — including places that had been inaccessible for decades. However, several obstacles endure, especially for women and girls, along with continuing and endemic food insecurity, skyrocketing inflation, severe economic instability brought on by global economic sanctions and the loss of foreign aid, restricted means of subsistence, and increased frequency and intensity of climate shocks.
Since the end of the conflict, over a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) have voluntarily returned, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) records; in 2023, 680,000 IDP returnees and 60,000 refugees are expected to return. UNHCR will continue to emphasise the supply of cash support, essential humanitarian supplies and housing while concurrently endorsing community- and area-based initiatives in Priority Areas of Return and Reintegration (PARRs).
UNHCR’s Inclusive and Cooperative Approach
The inter-agency Regional Response Plan (RRP) will continue in 2023 in the Islamic Republics of Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, notwithstanding the unstable situation inside Afghanistan. UNHCR will continue to lead and coordinate the strategy with an inclusive and cooperative approach; in 2022 there were 40 partners, up from 11 in 2021. Additionally, efforts will be made to fortify vital PARR services and facilities to promote long-term fixes and foster an environment allowing returns to reintegrate sustainably.
For more than 40 years, the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan have provided asylum to Afghan refugees. At present, they home over 2 million officially registered refugees from earlier waves of displacement, as well as an additional 5 million Afghans with different statuses. While assisting communities that host refugees, UNHCR will assist host governments in their attempts to involve Afghans in delivering public services like health and education. Additionally, UNHCR will investigate how social safety nets might strengthen Afghans’ ability to withstand adversity and promote long-term solutions.
Following a four-month delay, on 10 November 2023 Pakistan extended the legal status of over 1.4 million Afghan refugees until the end of the year. However, the country once again refused pleas to stop deporting any Afghans who do not have proper documentation, and other foreign people. In the midst of a widespread crackdown on foreigners living illegally in Pakistan, including an officially estimated 1.7 million Afghans, the announcement is a relief to the official refugee community.
Involuntary Repatriation of Afghan Refugees
Involuntary repatriation of refugees is a violation of the principle of non-refoulement of the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 (UNCSR). Aid organisations are of the view that Afghans who are fleeing Pakistan to avoid being arrested and deported are sleeping under the open sky without access to food, water, shelter or sanitation facilities as they cross the border into their country. In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have fled Pakistan as authorities go door-to-door to verify the documentation of immigrants they believe are living illegally in Pakistan; 31 October 2023 was the deadline Pakistan set for people to leave the country or face arrests as part of a fresh anti-migrant campaign that might result in radicalising the Afghans against Pakistan.
The two primary border crossings, Torkham and Chaman, are where Afghans exit Pakistan. On the other side, the Taliban have established camps where people can stay while they wait to be transferred back into Afghanistan, where they were born. As per aid organisations, Torkham lacks a suitable place to live. There is no lighting, no restrooms, no sources of heating other than open fires, and restricted access to potable water. There is inadequate hygiene, and open defecation. Thousands of workers enter Afghanistan every day to establish facilities for UN agencies and aid organisations.
Lived Experiences and Exposures
For 17 years, Kayal Mohammad lived in Peshawar, a city in northwest Pakistan. He was asked to leave Pakistan and sent to the Afghan border over a week ago; he has five children. He could not carry any furniture or other home items with him. All his family’s possessions are still in Pakistan. Hawa, his seven-year-old daughter, sobs from being cold. She sleeps without a blanket and has tea from a broken plastic bottle. Her father appealed for assistance from the global community. Since the Taliban government is still not recognised as a legitimate authority, these Afghan citizens are unable to ask the Taliban government for anything. Families in Pakistan lack everything — land, and a place to live. All they do is live under the open sky. Nobody assists them.
Most individuals are transferred to a dry riverbed after completing their first registration and processing at a transit centre. People’s watches, jewellery and cash are taken at the Pakistani border, so they enter Afghanistan with little more than the clothing on their backs. Since they studied Urdu and English in Pakistan, many returning citizens lack the necessary educational documentation, making it difficult for them to continue their education. They also lack knowledge of Dari and Pashto, the native Afghan languages, Dari and Pashto. Given that the majority of returning families were among the poorest migrants in Pakistan, there is a good chance that child labour and smuggling in Afghanistan may increase as a result of poverty.
Afghans were forced to flee Pakistan; the government bull-dozed their mud-brick homes on the outskirts of Islamabad. Thousands more Afghans in Pakistan who are awaiting deportation to the US under a special refugee programme after escaping the Taliban takeover in their country have also expressed concern about re-persecution in the country of origin. The historical issues around child-smuggling at Torkham indicate that minors will become more involved in smuggling and the movement of illegal commodities. The Taliban claims to have Committees that are always on the go, providing food, water and blankets to Afghans. In statements made in public on 5 November 2023 at the Vatican, Pope Francis lamented the plight of Afghan refugees who sought safety in Pakistan but are now unsure of where to go.
Afghanistan faces a plethora of difficulties, made worse by the international community’s isolation of the government led by the Taliban. Millions of Afghans have been IDPs as a result of years of drought, a struggling economy and the fallout from decades of conflict. The humanitarian community is increasingly worried that the developing nation will not be able to assist or assimilate individuals who are currently being compelled to flee from Pakistan.
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