More than 100,000 Afghan refugees have been repatriated from Pakistan since July, and thousands more are expected to leave before the end of the year. But they're uncertain about their future in the home country.
Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Afghan refugees are worried about their uncertain future in Pakistan, and what awaits them in their home country is equally dangerous.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said last week that Pakistani authorities had stepped up the repatriation process for the Afghan refugees. More than 100,000 Afghans have already left the country since July - the highest number since the fall of the Taliban regime in Kabul in 2001 - and as many are expected to depart in the coming months.
A majority of those returning to Afghanistan had been living in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province; the rest are being repatriated from the southwestern Balochistan province.
According to the UNHCR, there are around 2.6 million registered Afghans in Pakistan, most of whom had migrated to the neighboring Islamic republic during the 1980s Afghan war. After the US invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent toppling of the Islamist Taliban government in 2001, many Afghans moved back to their homeland. A large number, however, preferred to stay back in Pakistan.
A 'coerced refugee return'
The UN refugee agency says the refugees are feeling increasingly insecure in Pakistan as a majority of these Afghans are being pressured to leave the country.
In the six months prior to July, only 7,000 refugees crossed back into Afghanistan, according to UNHCR figures. But the ongoing police crackdown on these refugees has made life difficult for them in Pakistan, and they're left with no choice but to move back to their home country.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently called on the Pakistani authorities to "cease coercive measures and other abuses that are driving tens of thousands of Afghan refugees from Pakistan." HRW also said the Pakistani government should "extend legal residency status to Afghan refugees until at least December 31, 2017."
The Pakistani government has extended the repatriation deadline many times, but the refugees fear the December 2016 deadline will be final.
"Pakistani authorities are increasingly committing abuses against Afghan refugees that are triggering a mass refugee return," said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher at HRW. "The government should rein in its abusive security forces and ensure the refugees secure status and protection."
Pakistani officials say the new measures are aimed at limiting the threat of Taliban fighters - 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 on documented refugees to leave has been severely criticized by international rights groups such as HRW.
"There have been several protests against Islamabad in Kabul. Previously, only a section of the Afghan population was against Pakistan, now an increasing number of people are turning against us. The authorities responsible for repatriation should deal with the situation carefully," Gohar Ali Khan, a Peshawar-based analyst, told DW.
The deteriorating bilateral ties between Kabul and Islamabad are yet another reason for the refugees' uncertainty.
"Pakistan has been the home to these Afghans for four decades. We have supported them throughout. The repatriation process should also be friendly. We must treat the returnees with respect," Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, a politician in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told DW.
A difficult new start
But the Afghan refugees are heading back to a country that has been ravaged by a protracted war and an Islamist insurgency.
Afghan authorities say they would welcome the refugees back and have already started programs for their welfare.
Recently, a delegation of 120 Afghan delegates living in Pakistan - including tribal elders, businessmen and professionals - held a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul to discuss the repatriation process of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. Among these delegates was Najeeb Nangyal, a representative for the Afghan doctors in Pakistan. "The refugees in Pakistan are committed to returning to their country, but there are a number of challenges that should be addressed," Nangyal told DW.
The challenges, according to Nangyal, include a lack of accommodation and financial support for the people who are starting a new life in the country.
Nangyal said that the Afghan government had so far not provided any support to refugees. Only the UNHCR is providing financial support to the registered refugees, which is "insufficient," he added.
Most Afghans returning from Pakistan either go back to their villages or live with their relatives in the cities for a while.
"There has been no major support from the Afghan government," a refugee who recently returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan told DW, adding that most of them did not even have a place to live.
The Afghan government has been embroiled in a conflict with the Taliban. The violent attacks in Kabul and other parts of the country have increased over the past few months. The Islamists have also captured a number of towns, and Afghan security forces are trying to retake the territories. Experts say that the focus of the Afghan government is on quelling the insurgency and not on the welfare of the incoming 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 a lack of livelihood opportunities raise the risk of further displacement," Babar Baloch, communications officer at UNHCR, told DW.
Additional reporting by Faridullah Khan from Peshawar.