Coming Home to a Foreign Land: The Repatriation of Afghan Refugees

Afghans returning home from Pakistan find few prospects for education and jobs

Last August, at the crack of dawn on the day after Pakistan celebrated its 68th anniversary of independence, Nowshad Asghar and his extended family of 19 got on a bus in Peshawar with their belongings and took off.

They were on their way to Afghanistan — a place they called home, but a place that was a foreign land to them.

Asghar says his family’s journey from Peshawar to Jalalabad took nearly twelve hours

“We put our family on the bus and outside [on top] we put the tools, the required things for the house — blankets and kitchen wares,” recalls Asghar. “And we started.”

“My father had been planning to leave for a month,” says Asghar, whose family had been living in the Pakistani city of Peshawar for decades. “He said we [were] having security problems from the people and government of Pakistan. So we agreed to leave with him.”

Asghar’s family was among several hundred thousand Afghan refugees who recently moved to Afghanistan — pushed, say human rights advocates and many of the Afghans, by increasing government pressure and harassment from law enforcers in Pakistan. Last year, around 371,000 registered Afghan refugees went back to Afghanistan, in a voluntary repatriation process facilitated by the UNHCR, says Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokesperson for UNHCR Pakistan.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, supports “voluntary repatriation” of refugees as one of the three possible durable solutions to refugee crises. UNHCR says those who decide to return to their country of origin should do so in “security and dignity,” based on a “free and informed choice.”

But critics of the Afghan return charge that Pakistani authorities have stepped up harassment of the refugees, driving them home in a manner that violates the standards of voluntary repatriation. A February Human Rights Watch report says “a toxic combination of deportation threats and police abuses” have pushed many of the Afghans to leave.

Khan, the UNHCR spokesperson, says another factor was one of the driving forces behind last year’s huge number of repatriations: a change in border regulations passed by the Pakistani government. Until June 2016, the Afghan-Pakistan border was nearly open, allowing cross-border movements without any valid passport or visa. This was convenient for the thousands of families whose relatives either worked or lived on either side of the border.

“In many Afghan families, either the head of household is working in Kabul with their families in Pakistan, or vice verse,” says Khan. “So it used to be convenient for them to visit their families once in two months or so. But with the new border regulation, the Afghan citizens are now required to show their passports to enter Pakistan, making it more difficult for refugees or Afghan citizens to visit family members on either side of the border.

“That’s why many refugee families decided it was now time for them to go back. Because they couldn’t visit their families freely,” says Khan.

What they perhaps had not counted on were the fundamental challenges facing those who return — particularly in finding work and securing a good education for their children.

In a land of joblessness, ‘everything possible’

Afghan refugees have been in Pakistan since 1978, following a communist takeover of the country. Many more arrived in 1979 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and again in 1991 following a Taliban takeover. According to a UNHCR report, as of 2016, there were 1.4million registered Afghan refugees in the country. The BBC estimates a further million unregistered refugees.

Data Source: UNHCR; Visualization: Samira Sadeque

Over the years, many of the Afghans in Pakistan have held stable jobs in the country’s informal labor sector.

“They have formed a very integral part of informal economy — one that has a bigger share of the pie,” says Amber Shamsi Rahim, a journalist in Islamabad.

Nowshad Asghar and his two brothers ran a juice store in Peshawar, and had a steady income. They earned about Rs 25,000 ($236) per month, which he says was enough for their family.

In Afghanistan, says Asghar, he’s been looking for a job for nine months, but with no luck. In Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, he has been asking friends and distant relatives to help him find jobs. His brothers are also in a similar situation.

“We want to work but there aren’t any jobs,” he says. His family, which includes his father, two brothers, their wives, and their 12 children, survives on savings they made when they were in Pakistan.

While Asghar’s family and many other returned Afghans remain jobless, their absence is felt in Pakistan.

“Pakistan businesses were so dependent on Afghans, or Pakistanis living in the area were so dependent on Afghan refugees, that local level officials have been pleading with higher level officials to stop this [repatriation],” says Gerry Simpson, a senior refugee researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch.

For those returning to Afghanistan, prospects for jobs aren’t likely to improve anytime soon, says Ahmad Ali, provincial council chief of Nangarhar, the province where Asghar’s family moved to.

“They are not coming in thousands, they are in millions,” says Ali. “We don’t have any jobs for them at the moment.”

Ali worries about the long-term impact if the returned refugees remain jobless.

“If the Afghan government fails to provide jobs for the refugees, then this is going to be a next problem for us,” he says. “Because if you’re jobless, you’ll do anything. Some of them will go to Taliban, some will go to the Daesh (ISIS) and some of them will join the gangs — everything is possible.”

No room for children

In Pakistan, says Asghar, the children in his family went to school regularly. Asghar himself was born in Pakistan and did all of his schooling there.

But in Afghanistan, he worries his nieces and nephews are not getting a good education, because there aren’t enough schools for the repatriating refugees.

Nangahar, which has absorbed more returning refugee children than any other Afghan province, has more than 600 schools. But Ali, the provincial council chief, says that’s not enough.

“It’s a good thing that refugees are returning to their own home, we’re happy about that,” he says. “But the problem is that we can’t provide them with even the basic needs such as education.”

“Our children are just passing their times, these teachers are also not focusing on their children,” says Asghar. He says there aren’t enough rooms, books, or even pencils for the children at the schools.

Source: Ahmad Ali, Nangarhar and Agency For Technical Cooperation and Development; Visualization: Samira Sadeque

Asghar’s five-year-old nephew Amanullah goes to school in Jalalabad now, but misses the facilities they had in Pakistan, such as transportation that picked and dropped the children to and from their school. Asghar has to take them to school on foot, a 20-minutes walk each way.

Amanullah is among 150,125 the children who returned to Pakistan in the past year.

“We don’t have that much money to send them to private schools. It’s very expensive over here in Afghanistan,” says Asghar.

Back in Pakistan, a sense of nostalgia looms

Ali says that Jalalabad is now brimming with returned refugees.

“The city is full of refugees. Some are living in the park, some with relatives, you cannot find a house in Nangarhar for rent because of the refugees,” he says.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the absence of the refugees is visible in the neighborhoods where they had become an intricate part of society, says Rahim from Islamabad.

“Even in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, there’s a section where a lot of Afghan refugees resided. You still see remnants of it, a bridal shop for instance — because Afghans wear white for their weddings, so it was very distinctive,” recalls Rahim.

But all that might disappear in the years to come as many other Afghans, like Asghar’s family, give in to the harassments and begin packing their bags for a home that they have never even seen. On the other side of the border, the struggle remains to find home in a foreign land.