An average of 1,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan every day during the first two weeks of April, according to figures released on April 20 by the Norwegian Refugee Council.
That’s nearly seven times as many people per day, or a 567 percent increase over the number of people the NRC documented from December 2016 through March. During that period, fewer than 150 registered Afghan refugees crossed the border from Pakistan every day.
Pakistan resumed repatriation of Afghan refugees on April 3 after pausing for the winter and due to a border closure. Pakistan denies that it is forcing people to return to Afghanistan.
“The international response to this protection failure is not sufficient: Without refugee status, unregistered Afghan refugees are largely unprotected. As a result, many now report that they are returning involuntarily, to an uncertain future, in a country struggling with escalating conflict and widespread poverty.”
Kate O’Rourke, Country Director for NRC in Afghanistan.
Last year, Pakistan agreed to extend the validity of “Proof of Registration” documents after threatening to invalidate the cards of 1.5 million Afghan refugees on December 31.
But many of the families now returning fled Afghanistan in the 1980s and have never formally been registered as refugees in Pakistan.
In interviews conducted along the Tokham border crossing on April 3-4 and 9, refugees told the NRC that endemic problems had prevented them from registering in Pakistan.
“They gave registration cards to some people, but they were asking for too much money. That’s why we couldn’t receive a Proof of Registration card. We were not able to afford it.”
Kimia Gul, an unregistered refugee who returned to Afghanistan at the beginning of April
Afghans in Pakistan have little or no protection without documents proving their refugee status.
Furthermore, many Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan also cite increased harassment, threats, evictions and the detention of family members as reasons for their return.
As the price of identity documents skyrockets, many people now feel compelled to return to Afghanistan despite the worsening security and humanitarian situation.
According to US officials, 30 percent of Afghanistan is not in control of the country’s government.
Speaking to Grasswire earlier this week, William Carter, Head of Programme for NRC Afghanistan, said the general humanitarian conditions in the country were very poor regardless of the conflict.
“Many unregistered returnees have nowhere to live or go to, no way of putting food on the table, and are vague as to whether their children are able to attend class and not miss their education.”
William Carter, Head of Programme for NRC in Afghanistan
Because many never registered in Pakistan, they will not have access to the same services other refugees have when they return to Afghanistan. NRC says aid for undocumented returning Afghans is limited and humanitarian protection is almost nonexistent.
Rostam, a 32-year-old father of eight felt forced to return to Afghanistan from Pakistan, NRC says.
His family left Afghanistan during the 1980s. Rostam himself was born in Pakistan and lived in Miskin Camp, Khyber pashtonkhwa.
Now that he is in Afghanistan, he doesn’t know where to go. His late father’s Tazkeera (identity paper) shows the family are from Laghman province, in the east.
“I only have my late father’s Tazkeera, which is now 60 years old. I don’t have land. I don’t have a house. I only have children. If anyone puts a tent on a mountain, we will live there. If not, only Allah will protect us.”
Rostam, an unregistered refugee returning to Afghanistan, interviewed by NRC
“I only want shelter to be protected, where my children could study and go to school, otherwise my children will be the same as me,” he added.
NRC says it has been able to offer emergency assistance to more than 35,000 unregistered refugees, including shelter, water, education and cash grants.
But the International Organization for Migration says the number of Afghans returning from Pakistan is increasing and will likely continue to climb.
In its April 15 situation report, the IOM said it was responding to a substantial increase in the number of undocumented Afghans returning from Pakistan and Iran.
Between April 9-15, a total of 8,428 unregistered Afghans returned – either voluntarily or because they were deported – through the Torkham border crossing in Nangarhar province or Spin Boldak in Kandahar province.
The number of people returning increased 27 percent over the previous week, bringing the total number of undocumented Afghans returning from Pakistan since January 1 to 33,026, according to the IOM team that monitors repatriations.
The IOM was able to assist 66 percent of the people returning – 5,600 people, including 693 single parents and 45 “special cases.”
The IOM report supports the NRC’s findings: Many of the people now returning have lived outside of Afghanistan for decades, the April 15 report said, and “another surge in returns could occur at any time.”
IOM estimates 500,000 undocumented Afghans could return this year from Pakistan and Iran. Last year, over 225,000 unregistered and 380,000 registered refugees returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan.
Since 2002, the UN Refugee Agency has facilitated the return of around 1.4 million registered refugees from Afghanistan, and another 1.45 million remain in the country. The number of undocumented Afghans in Pakistan is estimated to be around 1 million.