Pakistan’s intensifying crackdown on terrorists is likely to victimize Afghans living there, many of whom could be forced to return to Afghanistan.
Pakistan hosts about 1.5 million registered and about one million undocumented Afghans. After the 2014 terrorist attack on the army-run school in Peshawar in which more than 150 people were killed, Pakistan started a nationwide campaign against terrorists. As part of this campaign, it has been sending unregistered Afghans back to Afghanistan. In 2015, more than 85,000 undocumented Afghans were forced to go back to their country.
“In 2016, it is expected that more than 100,000 Afghans will be returned to Afghanistan,” Qurat Sadozai, regional director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told DW.
“They will come back to a country where their properties have been occupied, they don’t have any job opportunities and they also lack legal documentation which is essential to access their rights of being an Afghan citizen or as a legal returnee,” Sadozai said.
Undocumented returnees are not protected under the mandate of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. So unlike documented returnees, they are not provided with financial help, and once they reach Afghanistan they are not provided with shelters and are forced to live in general communities.
According to Sadozai, “Due to conflict, many returnees cannot go back to where they originally belong to. So, someone from the north will settle in Herat in the western region.” She added that this makes it difficult for humanitarian organizations to find and assist them.
Philipp Kauppert, director of the Pakistan office of the German foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), said that Pakistan’s mainstream media often link the subjects of terrorism and Afghan refugees, which is misleading and is confusing public opinion. “Afghan refugees are a relatively easy target in Pakistan, through which the authorities want to prove the effectiveness of their actions. Unfortunately, this doesn’t address the root causes of terrorism and extremism in Pakistan.”
Sadozai believes that documented and undocumented returnees should be dealt with equally.
“The government of Afghanistan is working with the NGOs to handle this situation and also wants efforts made to deal with all the returnees in a same way,” she said.
As international forces continue to withdraw from Afghanistan, foreign aid and international investments have also been reduced.
According to the latest Human Resource Appeal document published by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), more than one million people in Afghanistan have been displaced due to armed conflict and natural disasters.
Pakistan is not only sending back illegal Afghans but has also encouraged registered Afghan refugees to return to Afghanistan, many of whom have lived in Pakistan for more than three decades.
Last year, some 54,000 of them returned to Afghanistan. This year around 60,000 more are expected to return. However, Islamabad has been reluctantly extending the deadlines by which all Afghan refugees have to return. The latest deadline is June 2016.
As the threat posed by different militant groups rises especially along the Af-Pak border, many agencies find it difficult to access these areas.
Analyst Kauppert says Afghanistan is not the place these refugees should be sent to. In fact, many Afghans decide to embark on perilous journeys to Europe rather than return home. “Last year more than 150,000 Afghans applied for asylum in Germany.”
Kauppert said that the growing number of people leaving for Europe indicates that the situation in the conflict-ridden country is not favorable for returnees in general.