The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recently announced that the Afghan government would be setting up forty eight new camps in Afghanistan, for returnee refugees from Pakistan. Although these plans may seem like a welcome return for the refugees, the news has prompted some accusations that forced repatriation of registered refugees may be taking place.
PACT Radio spoke to UNHCR spokesperson Dunya Aslam Khan who completely rejected the rumour, stating that no such actions were being carried out by Pakistan. She explained, “There are currently around 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees staying in Pakistan, along with estimates of over a million more that are unregistered. In the past few years, around 7 million have themselves willingly returned to their homeland in Afghanistan.”
Registration of Afghan refugees took place in 2006 and was renewed again in 2009, to confirm the legal stay of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Along with this, two years ago the UNHCR developed a strategy for the return of Afghan refugees known as the Afghan Management and Repatriation Strategy (AMRS.) The strategy stated that repatriation would only only take place under the condition that Afghan refugees themselves willingly returned in the coming year.
Refugees that take part in the voluntary repatriation programme are given $150 of aid per person in order to cover transportation costs, along with the initial costs of settling back home. “Each family is given a card that guarantees them financial aid upon their return to Afghanistan,” Dunya further clarified.
However, it is unclear exactly what happens to those refugees who fail to leave Pakistan in the given time or who change their mind and want to remain in Pakistan. “Families are given permission for some extended time to remain under the rules of both countries. Children are given education and families other essential services while they remain,” says Dunya.
Despite such initiatives, for many families returning to Afghanistan still remains an unfeasible option. Afghan refugees living in a camp site in Board Tajabad in Peshawar pay around Rs.800 per month to rent out land for their tents. Conditions are poor with little electricity, clean water or sanitary conditions. Yet despite this speaking to the refugees, many have the desire to return to Afghanistan, but do not feel they have the resources or economic security to do so.
Shakila washes clothes for people to earn money, while her children and husband collect scrap material to sell. She says, “We love our country, but we don’t have any land there to return to. We cannot go back if we don’t have more support from the government.” Jan Agha, who also works as a scrap collector agrees, “I wish our government could give us land, wood, bricks – with this we can maybe build our own home in Afghanistan.” While Sher Zaman adds, “Being so poor and sick, I could not return there, even though I would like to.”
Schemes may be in place and more efforts being made to accommodate refugees back in Afghanistan, but for many refugees repatriation will only become truly viable when they are confident that they will have a home to return to, along with a way to support their families. Dunya Aslam Khan herself acknowledges this, “Many Afghan refugees have no proper home to return to in Afghanistan. We have to accept the reality that for many refugees, they are unlikely to be in a position to leave in the near future.”