Protecting Afghan refugees
The year 2015 has seen an unprecedented number of Afghan refugees returning home from Pakistan due to increased pressure from the Pakistani government and police forces. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that since the beginning of the year, almost 32,000 Afghans "spontaneously returned" and over 2,000 people have been deported, many of whom lack financial support and supplies to transition back into life in Afghanistan.
These returns and deportations are up 130 percent from last year's figures, signaling what many view as a substantial shift in Pakistan's relations with its Afghan refugee population. Furthermore, more than 1.6 million Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan and are reportedly being urged to return by the end of 2015.
An official from Pakistan's Ministry of States and Frontier Region was recently quoted by news agency DPA as saying: "The registered refugees can return by the end of this year but the unregistered are illegal aliens and have no right to stay."
Some analysts argue the new measure is aimed at limiting the threat of Taliban - who are believed to hide within the Afghan refugee communities - and thereby hinder a surge in terrorist attacks in the South Asian nation. But the pressure for documented refugees to leave has been highly contested by international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch.
Babar Baloch, communications officer at UNHCR, says in a DW interview that his organization has received assurance that refugees will not be pressured to leave as "Afghans have the right to return home in a voluntary and dignified manner."
DW: What reasons have Afghan refugees given for leaving Pakistan?
Babar Baloch: Earlier this year, returning Afghan refugees were citing reasons linked with regular police roundups after the Peshawar attacks.
However, there are indications that returns are dropping now, as Pakistan's ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) - which deals with refugee affairs - have sent clear instructions to central and provincial authorities, asking them not to harass or detain Afghan refugees.
What are the total numbers of registered and un-registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan?
The total number of registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan is around 1.6 million. There are no exact numbers available on undocumented Afghans, but rough estimates.
Over 6000 registered Afghan refugees have returned home during the months of January and February in 2015. This is quite a jump when compared to the number of refugee returns for the same period in 2014, when only around 500 had gone home from Pakistan.
UNHCR is monitoring the situation, and we are in touch with authorities in Pakistan to ensure that refugee rights are protected.
To what sort of life do the refugees return to in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is recovering from decades of war and conflict. However, we are not objecting to voluntary returns when Afghan refugees think it is the right time for them to return.
Over five million Afghan refugees have returned home since 2002. Refugees should not be forced to leave the country of asylum under pressure.
Afghan refugees still constitute the largest protracted refugee population in the world. It means that return and reintegration will be a challenge in Afghanistan, as most of them have been away for decades - in some cases even born in exile.
Insecurity still remains to be an issue in many areas of Afghanistan and people have limited access to basic services and there is lack of livelihood opportunities.
What do you make of media reports quoting a Pakistani official saying that Islamabad is pressing more than 1.6 million Afghan refugees to go back?
UNHCR has remained engaged with the Pakistani government and has always appreciated Pakistan's decades-long hospitality in hosting generously millions of Afghan refugees.
We have received assurance that refugees will not be pressured to leave. Moreover, there is agreement that Afghans have the right to return home in a voluntary and dignified manner.
What can the international community do to help these refugees?
We seek the continued engagement and support of the international community in Afghanistan and in the two major Afghan refugee hosting countries of Pakistan and Iran.
Given the volatile regional geopolitical climate, the implications of abandoning Afghanistan at this critical juncture will be far reaching. Limited access to basic services and lack of livelihood opportunities raise the risk of further displacement.
Babar Baloch is communications officer at UN refugee agency, UNHCR.