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Uncertainty grips Afghan refugees in Pakistan as repatriation deadline nears

Little girls play a game called "Chindro" in Pashto language in the refugee camp. (AN photo)
Khan Mohammed (left) and elderly Abdullah (right) speaking to Arab News. (AN photo)
Entrance to Pehlawan Pul refugee camp in Peshawar. (AN photo)
PESHAWAR: Uncertainty and fear are gripping Afghan refugees in Pehlawanano Pul refugee camp near Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK) neighboring Afghanistan, as the Pakistani government’s deadline of Jan. 31 for refugee repatriation approaches.
The Pakistani Cabinet on Jan. 3 granted only a one-month extension for 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees to stay legally in Pakistan after their legal residency status or proof-of-registration cards expired on Dec. 31.
Noor Haider, 38, a father of eight, said he has been living in Pehlawanano Pul camp since his family fled to Pakistan in 1979 after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
“I was born in Peshawar, and I have no place to live if I’m deported back to my home country,” he told Arab News.
Under the UN-backed repatriation process, Haider went back to Afghanistan a few months ago, but returned after acquiring an Afghan passport with a valid Pakistani visa.
“Under the repatriation process, Afghans are just transported to Afghanistan and left there at the mercy of God. They don’t have any support there,” he said.
Islamabad’s request for Afghan refugees, both registered and undocumented, to leave Pakistan has caused chaos among refugee families.
Abdullah Khan, 60, who was 15 years old when he moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan, said he has no home in Afghanistan, and has been living in Pehlawanano Pul for more than four decades.
“When the refugees see they can’t afford to pay rent and manage other expenses in Afghanistan, they return to Pakistan,” he told Arab News.
Repatriated refugees sometimes do not even have money to pay drivers when they reach their destination in Afghanistan, Khan added.
“The UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) pays money to an Afghan family two days after they settle down in Afghanistan,” he said.
“With no jobs or health facilities, Afghans either return to Pakistan or start begging in Afghanistan, where there are very few opportunities to earn a livelihood.”
Children play cricket outside their mud-houses. (Arab News)

UNHCR spokesman Qaiser Khan Afridi told Arab News: “Once refugees visit repatriation centers in Pakistan, the authorities give them a form that they’re leaving for their country. As these refugees enter Afghanistan, they produce the form at the centers over there and receive the payment, which is $200 per head.”
Pehlawanano Pul resident Khan Mohammed, 30, said the Afghan government ignores refugees when they reach Afghanistan.
“We were told earlier that we’d be given a small piece of land to build our house in Afghanistan, but no land was given to any of the returning refugees,” he told Arab News.
Shah Wali, born in Afghanistan and now a resident of Gundo refugee camp near Peshawar, told Arab News that he had been living in Peshawar for the last 38 years.
He said initially refugees were given rations by Pakistani authorities, but that was suspended decades ago.
Gundo houses 35 Afghan families, and hundreds of others have either been repatriated to Afghanistan or relocated to localities near Peshawar.
The Afghan refugees’ attache for KPK, Abdul Hamid Jalili, said there are 1.4 million registered and 0.7 million unregistered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, most of them in the province.
“Afghanistan is a war-ravaged country, and it’s not possible to provide every facility to returning refugees,” he told Arab News.
“From the very beginning of the crisis we’ve been asking the international community to support us, to make Afghanistan a place where Afghans can live peacefully.”
He said despite the violence and bad conditions in Afghanistan, around 7 million Afghans have returned to their native country since 2002. Afridi said Pakistan has 54 refugee camps, most of them in KPK.
The UNHCR facilitates volunteer repatriation of Afghan refugees under an agreement between it, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But last year, the UNHCR cut its cash grant for returnees from $400 to $200, citing a shortage of funds.
Pakistani authorities have urged the UNHCR and the international community to help create a conducive environment for the return of Afghan refugees to their country.
Afghan refugee Khan Mohammed told Arab News that the world must realize that sustainability is a big issue for returnees.

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