Ending exile: Pakistan looks for Afghan refugees to return home

The country has hosted an estimated three million Afghan refugees for 40 years, minister says

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Pakistan is working with the UN to encourage more Afghan refugees, many of whom have lived in the country for decades, to return home.

Pakistan and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the Afghan refugee population of the country at around 3 million, both living in refugee camps and among the Pakistani population. Around half of those are registered with the Pakistani government.

The first displacement of Afghans to Pakistan and Iran began during the Soviet invasion in 1979. Two million refugees escaped that conflict and people continue to flee recurring violence between a Taliban insurgency, US troops and the Afghan government following the American-led invasion in 2001.

Muhammad Mehboob Sultan, Minister for States and Frontier Regions, said his country had taken steps both to help refugees living long-term in Pakistan and assist in voluntary repatriation.

“Pakistan is hosting the biggest number of Afghans, of around 3 million registered and unregistered, for the last four decades, despite immense financial, social and environmental challenges,” he told a UNHCR briefing in Abu Dhabi this week.

He added the government had provided Afghan refugees with access to free healthcare and education and “they are employed in all sectors except government”. In February, Pakistan allowed registered Afghan refugees to open bank accounts. Prime Minister Imran Khan, who ordered the change, said the move “should have been done a long time ago”.

But today, the UNHCR says that as Afghanistan inches a possible peace deal between warring parties, areas are becoming safe for refugees to return. This is despite the Taliban now controlling at least half the country and the country experiencing some of the most bloody years in recent history.

Those who choose to return to one of the 20 UNHCR identified safe areas are given $200 (Dh 735) upon arrival at one of three "encashment" centres in Afghanistan.

Between March and November 2019, 6,220 people returned voluntarily with assistance from the Pakistani government and the UNHCR, a significant drop from the 380,000 who returned in 2016.

“The refugee life-cycle is such that you flee conflict and persecution and you have space in host countries to have an existence in dignity. But the final solution is to find an end to that refugee status and exile and go home,” Indrika Ratwatte, director of the UNHCR’s Asia and the Pacific bureau, said on Monday.

The UNHCR is working with Afghanistan to assist in state-building and with Pakistan in education to ensure those who do choose to return are able to reintegrate and contribute to Afghan society, Mr Ratwatte added.

But Pakistan has been accused of forcing repatriation of Afghans over the past decade. Human Rights Watch accused the government of a “concerted campaign” of intimidation, arrests and threats leading to the 2016 high in the number of Afghan returnees.

Saleem Khan, Pakistan’s Chief Commissioner for Afghan refugees, on Monday, denied the government had contributed to enforced returns.

He said the incident most referred to when discussing police brutality and forced deportation was the aftermath of the Army Public School Massacre, in which militants affiliated with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan killed 149 people, mostly children.

After the attack, Pakistan’s authorities began to register Afghan refugees in earnest, a move they said was to keep the country secure.

Human rights groups accused the government of using the registration drive to locate and deport an unwanted population.

Mr Khan insisted that apart from a few exceptions, most Afghan refugees want to return to their homeland.

“Today, when the situation is not as conductive, more than 90 per cent of them would say they do not want to go back,” said Mr Khan. “But if conditions are conducive, more than 90 per cent would say 'yes, we want to go'. This is the type of feeling they have towards their country.”