Afghan Refugees Face a Humanitarian Crisis

By the end of December, an estimated 1.7 million Afghan refugees, many of whom have never even seen their homeland, are due to lose their refugee status in Pakistan and are being ordered to return to their war-torn, poverty-stricken and blasted country. Afghan refugees in Pakistan make up the second largest refugee community in the world.

While both the Pakistani government and the United Nations High Commission on refugees say there is no intention to stage forced repatriations, the refugees are clearly being pushed to pack up and move out, raising concerns that a humanitarian crisis is in the making.

UN officials and others have in vain asked the Pakistani government to reconsider the decision to send off the refugees, to be told that Pakistan has been putting up with Afghan refugees for more than 30 years, one of the longest-running refugee problems in the world.

"The international community desires us to review this policy, but we are clear on this point. The refugees have become a threat to law and order, security, demography, economy and local culture," Habibullah Khan, the secretary of the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, told reporters. "Enough is enough."

Under an arrangement worked out with the Pakistani government, the United Nations Refugee Agency is providing families with US$150 each as well as a supply of jerry cans, buckets, soap, mosquito nets, sleeping mats, cooking utensils, plastic tarpaulins, quilts and winter clothing. Few of the refugees want anything to with going back to Afghanistan --or going there in the first place, having been born in Pakistan during their parents' flight to escape war, poverty and crime. Although the economy has recovered somewhat since the Americans drove out the Taliban in 2001, the country has largely been kept alive by massive infusions of international aid. Living standards are among the lowest in the world despite intensive NATO efforts at development, much of it continuously undone by rebels. Corruption is endemic. Of the estimated 30.5 million population, 43.2 percent are under the age of 14.

Despite those who have returned so far, at least as many as 3.5 million registered and unregistered Afghans still remain in Pakistan and Iran, where another 900,000 are encamped, according to the US Congressional Research Service. Some estimates go as high as 8 million Afghans overseas -- more than 25 percent of the population.

The porous borders between Afghanistan and its surrounding countries amount to no borders at all in many places, making flight relatively easy. In addition to the approximately 1.7 million refugees in the country, some 420,500 people displaced due to conflict remain in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Asia Calling, an Indonesian radio service that has a content-sharing agreement with Asia Sentinel, caught up with a refugee named Hayatullah, for instance, who was 25 years old when he left Afghanistan because of the war and was loading his belongings onto a pickup truck for the journey back to the country of his birth. All of Hayatullah's nine children were born in Pakistan's refugee camps.

"I haven't seen the country that we're going to. I?m sad to leave this country where I was born and grew up"? said his 16-year-old son Abidullah, "I will miss all my friends in Peshawar."

Assadullah Khan, 26, owned a fruit stall in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, supplying fruit to several districts for the last eight years and now has had to leave his business behind.

"I?m extremely upset, but I had no choice but to return and join the rest of my family," he said. "I'm leaving behind a very profitable business."

Others, like a small business owner named Saifur Khan, worry about their future in Afghanistan.

"The situation in Afghanistan is still not good. The US-led coalition forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014 and the situation could get worse," he said. "Where will we go then?"

The repatriation, which has been underway for more than a year, is putting pressure on relief agencies in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and affecting governments well beyond to Australia and the west. Many refugees choose to go anyplace but back to Afghanistan, where war has been raging almost continuously since 1979, first with the invasion of the country by Russian troops, followed by fighting over the spoils by Afghan warlords, followed by the arrival of the radical Islamic Taliban, followed by the Americans and NATO in revenge for Al Qaeda's destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

Australia agreed in July to play a key role in resolving the Afghan refugee process, increasing the country's annual intake of refugees and prioritizing the resettlement of Afghans from Pakistan. Inward migration is already an emotional issue in Australia, facing a steady stream of asylum-seekers, many from Sri Lanka. It has been diverting them to the islands of Nauru and Christmas Island while seeking a solution. Canada, the United States and the Scandinavian countries are being pressured to accept more refugees to relieve the pressure on Pakistan and Iran.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees, in its 2012-2013 planning report, said that since March 2002,the agency has helped the return of about 3.7 million registered Afghans from Pakistan.

"Individually recognized refugees and asylum-seekers have difficulty in accessing basic facilities and essential services including education, health care and work in Pakistan," the UNHCR report said. "Many of them have limited income opportunities so they must survive through informal work arrangements. Through bilateral memoranda with UN agencies, UNHCR will support identified branches of the national service structure to help build capacity to support the Afghan population living in Pakistan communities."