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Although such deadlines have been extended or ignored in the past, there are signs that the government means business this time. It is enforcing long-ignored rules that bar refugees from living outside designated camps, running businesses and owning property. It has forced banks to close refugees’ accounts and mobile companies to disable their SIM cards. Landlords have been encouraged to serve notice on Afghan tenants. The police, charged with raiding shops and homes, have taken full advantage of the opportunities for extortion afforded by the crackdown.
“In the past we could go everywhere and no one would ask us about showing a visa or passport,” says Noorullah Malik, an Afghan who lived happily in the city of Nowshera for more than 30 years. This week he was waiting forlornly in the line at the repatriation centre, where a policeman had tried to relieve him of one of his few movable assets, a cow.
Many refugees seem to have decided to go home before the winter sets in. The number of registration-card holders leaving
Pakistan has surged in the past three months from 1,250 in June to 67,057 in August. Officials are expecting a further surge following the end of the Eid festival in mid-September. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) predict 620,000 registered and undocumented refugees will return to Afghanistan by the end of the year. That would be a huge increase on recent years (see chart).
The UNHCR’s decision in June to double to $400 the repatriation grant paid to each returnee has helped to swell numbers. But it has also added to the strain on its budget. It and the IOM are appealing for a combined $73m just to get them through the year.
Pakistan used to counter charges that it was harming Afghans through its support for militant groups like the Taliban by touting its decades of hospitality towards Afghan refugees. But many ordinary Pakistanis see the refugees as a source of crime, unemployment and militancy. A senior police officer in Peshawar complains that the Afghans have turned an erstwhile “city of flowers” into a place of teeming slums, which harbour the most intractable redoubts of the polio virus, a disease that has nearly been eradicated elsewhere.
The massacre of more than 130 schoolboys in Peshawar in 2014 prompted the government to unveil a “national action plan” to repatriate all refugees, even though no Afghans have been proved to have participated in the attack. It does not help that relations between the two countries have deteriorated, as they have swapped accusations about which is most responsible for the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan.
The growing instability in Afghanistan, however, makes it a poor time for the refugees to return. Even with the UNHCR’s extra cash the new arrivals will not find the adjustment easy. The IOM says the flood of returnees has helped to drive up rents and food prices in Jalalabad, the first big Afghan city up the road from Peshawar. In 2015 the governor of Nangarhar, the province of which Jalalabad is the capital, said he did not want returnees from different provinces to settle on his patch.
The Afghan government is still encouraging refugees to return with a public-awareness campaign featuring the slogan “Grass is green in my land”. It promises to hand out land to the new arrivals. The Afghan ambassador to Pakistan recently told a gathering of refugees in Islamabad, “You belong in Afghanistan!” But the government, which provides little in the way of services at the best of times, is already struggling to deal with 221,000 people who have had to quit their homes within Afghanistan to escape fighting with the Taliban. The bitter winter looms. Aid agencies fear a humanitarian crisis.
Any problems the refugees may face on arrival in Afghanistan simply compound the hardship of having to leave their adoptive home in Pakistan. Many of them were born in exile to refugee parents, and have never set foot in the country to which they are “returning”. In Peshawar long-established Afghan businesses, from carpet shops to juice bars, are shutting down. Their owners are often forced to sell property, electricity generators and whatever other assets they have at giveaway prices.
Fazle Amin, a carpet-dealer, is trying frantically to recover money from customers who bought on credit. He fears he will lose almost $2m when he leaves the country. “I don’t know what I will do in Afghanistan,” he says. “I have never been there and I will be a refugee in my own country.”