‘Don’t come back’: Afghan returnees from Pakistan regret their homecoming

Afghan returnees say they have been given little help to resettle as the US, Taliban and Afghan government work towards peace

Aqeeda, her father and her children in 'Kabul Camp'. Lynzy Billing for The National

Five months ago, Aqeeda was forced to leave Shawqadr Dera camp in Pakistan’s Peshawar with her husband and six children, where she had lived for two decades.

They were sent to Afghanistan, a homeland they barely knew, after being among the 2.7 million who fled to Pakistan during the 40 years of war that began with the 1979 Soviet invasion and was exacerbated by the US-led intervention in 2001, a conflict that many hope is in its closing days.

Now the family are living in temporary shelters and say the only help they have had is a small box of food and a blanket they received at the border.

“We have been living here in a tent in terrible conditions — when it rains there is a lot of leakage. We have no electricity and we desperately need help from our government or international organisations. We need help from anyone who is willing to help us,” she says from ‘Kabul Camp’, a makeshift community in eastern Nangarhar province, about an hour’s drive from the border with Pakistan.

There has been little help for the 3.8 million refugees and undocumented Afghans who have returned to Afghanistan from various countries over the last five years.

“People from international organisations came here once, they surveyed the place and visited a few families but after they left, they didn’t come back or call us to give help.”

Aqeeda husband is disabled and unable to work properly, but is looking for work in the city. She has borrowed money to feed her children but hopes he will return with good news. According to Unicef, 42 per cent of under 25s in Afghanistan have no work, education or training.

Noor Wali's cousins inside their compound home. Lynzy Billing for The National

Nearly two decades after the US-led invasion against the Taliban government and Al Qaeda, an agreement was signed last month to end the war. Over the next 14 months, international troops will begin to withdraw from Afghanistan and the Taliban will sit with the government in Kabul to hash out the future.

The opportunity, US officials insist, offers a path to peace that could see the millions of displaced Afghans return home and all sides are committed to reducing the violence that killed 10,000 civilians last year.

The experience of those who have recently gone back, however, shows the scale of the task that lies ahead. Many are unable to access any assistance either from the state or NGOs, and finding safe shelter, jobs and even land to live on is difficult.

Tawas Khan returned to Kabul a year ago after leaving Shakas camp in Pakistan’s Peshawar.

“In Peshawar I had my own shop selling shoes, but right now I am a cobbler on the roadside. I am struggling to continue my work because my eyes are getting weaker every day. I am the only one who works in our family and I earn 150 to 200 Afghanis (US$2) per day,” said Mr Khan.

“Some days, we share just two or three biscuits between us all.”

Mr Khan says he has received no support from the government and has resorted to squatting in an abandoned compound in Kabul.

Tawas Khan and his children with their makeshift tent. Lynzy Billing for The National

“No one offered us support to come back and when we arrived here, no one helped us. A relative of mine told me to break the lock of this compound because it was empty. There was nothing here when we arrived but I saved up money to buy pieces of fabric to sew together to make this tent.”

He says he registered with the government but has yet to receive a reply.

“Six months ago, Save the Children visited our home, registered us and gave us AFN 6000 (Dh289). Since then we have not received anything further from them or anyone else.”

Despite the hardships of life in Pakistan, where Afghans are barred from owning property, have difficulty moving freely and are living in substandard accommodation, Mr Khan says he would never have left if police hadn’t forced them to go.

There is no more peace and security now than there was when I left Afghanistan for Pakistan 40 years ago

“If the police didn’t torture us in the camp we would not have come back to Afghanistan. Because I had a very good job and my life was going very well in Pakistan. Now I have no shelter and no proper job to fulfil the needs of my family,” he says.

He called on the government in Kabul to do more for people like him and his family.

“My request from the government is to provide us with homes, and to send my children to school. I can’t find the work to save up enough money to rent or buy a house.”

Kabul and Nangarhar provinces together host a third of all returnees, a UNHCR and World Bank report estimates.

“These families cannot return to their home provinces because they no longer have a home there or because of security problems. The Taliban still exist there. There is no more peace and security now than there was when I left Afghanistan for Pakistan 40 years ago,” Mr Khan said.

Noor Wali inside his home. Lynzy Billing for The National

In 2017, Noor Wali, 20, was detained in Pakistan for four months when his government issued refugee ID expired. While he was in custody, his family were forced to return to Afghanistan after 35 years.

Over the last three years, the community has set up a small village in Laghman province east of Kabul without any government support. They built their homes with the materials they carried across the border from Pakistan, he said.

“For each person, UNHCR provided $390 for transportation expenses from Pakistan to Afghanistan, but they didn’t provide for other expenses when we arrived so we used the money that remained to build these houses.”

Mr Wali said his family had a house in Pakistan and “life was good,” but now they are struggling to find work.

Last July, a joint study between the World Bank and the UN refugee agency reported that the majority of returnees are worse off financially than those who had stayed behind in Pakistan. Between March and November last year, 6,220 Afghans returned voluntarily, according to UNHCR figures, a significant drop from the 2016 return of 380,000 people.

Speaking at a high-level summit on Afghan refugees in Pakistan, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged other nations to do more to support Afghans.

“Afghanistan and its people cannot be abandoned,” Mr Guterres said. “Now is the time for the international community to act and to deliver.”

But Pakistan has been accused of forcing repatriations, an allegation the government has denied.

Chaloka Beyani, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, says that the forced repatriation of Afghan refugees adds to instability in Afghanistan.

“These people cannot be absorbed into Afghan economic and social life. The government clearly says, ‘Look, we don’t have the capacity.’”

Conditions are set for more returnees to soon flood across the border to Afghanistan. For these families, Tawas has a sobering message. “‘Don’t come back. There is nothing for you here and no one who will help.”