Jalala, 12 December 2012. Despite pressure from Islamabad and incentives from the UN, the vast majority of the 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan are still refusing to return to a country gripped by war and poverty.
“Some people think that the security situation has improved in Afghanistan, but they’re wrong,” said Malak Nader, who represents 500 families in the Jalala refugee camp on the outskirts of Mardan, a farming town in northwestern Pakistan.
“If we support the government, the Taliban will come the next day and slit our throats and if we support the Taliban, the coalition forces will come and bomb us,” the truck driver told AFP.
More than five million Afghans fled their homeland for Pakistan in the early 1980s, soon after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan.
Since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime, 3.8 million have returned, leaving 1.6 million behind, most born and brought up in Pakistan.
But as the 2014 deadline nears for Nato combat troops to leave Afghanistan, they are under increasing pressure from Pakistan to leave.
Their formal refugee documents are valid only until December 31, and Islamabad has so far declined to confirm publicly that it will renew their residency.
“If they don’t go in these conditions where every country is present in Afghanistan to provide them peace, when will they leave?” Pakistan’s minister for states and frontier regions, Shaukat Ullah, told reporters recently.
“Our idea is that they should go and participate in their country’s development.”
At talks with Afghan and UN officials at the weekend, Pakistan said it wanted to make repatriation “faster and better” but reiterated its commitment to a “voluntary process” although saying the deadline remains the same.
In late October, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) boosted incentives for Afghans to return — adding fuel, clothes and tarpaulin to the food package previously given to those looking to repatriate.
As a result, around 10,000 Afghans went home from October 23 to November 30 — more than double the numbers who were repatriated in the same period last year.
Preparing to join them was the elderly Azat Khan, who spent 30 years in exile in northwestern Pakistan but spoke to AFP as he got ready to drive back to Afghanistan.
He has always come and gone — first to fight the Russians, then to conduct business or to visit extended family — but this time it is for good.
“My house is completely destroyed over there, I have to rebuild it,” said the father-of-11 from Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan, upbeat about the future despite fears of a new civil war after 2014.
“I am happy to leave, it’s costing me less,” said Azat referring to the incentives from the United Nations.
But there is a catch: Afghans who leave give up their refugee status. If they come back, it will be without the protection of the law like a million other illegal Afghans, regularly accused by the Pakistanis of being criminals.
According to the UN, nearly 97 per cent of the refugees have no intention of leaving Pakistan, largely due to the insecurity.
Faced with the stalemate, charities have suggested that a new permit should be created allowing Afghans and Pakistanis to work on both sides of the border, legally, without risk of being harassed.
If their refugee papers are not renewed, UNHCR representative in Pakistan Neill Wright said it was “hazy” what would happen on January 1.
“They have never knowingly deported or forced an Afghan registered refugee back,” he said, adding that he was “quietly confident” the same situation would continue next year.
Back in Jalala, which looks more like a village than a refugee camp, with sugar cane fields and mud-brick homes, Nader said he did not want to risk losing everything in Pakistan for an uncertain future in Afghanistan.
“As long as the Pakistani government doesn’t expel us, we’ll stay here,” he said, as a dozen men from the camp nodded in agreement.