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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 49 New Delhi November 26, 2016

Afghans returning from Pakistan

Monday 28 November 2016, by Harish Chandola

Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are now returning from Pakistan, with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). By the end the year 620,000 Afghans will have returned. In June the UNHCR had decided to increase their repatriation grant from $ 400 each to double, and it and the IOM are appealing for a combined dollar assistance of 73 million until the year for their return and resettlement.

In October beginning the Afghan Government had asked foreign aid doners hosted by the European Union to provide $ 3.8 billion a year at least by 2020. The voluntary repatriation centre on the outskirts of Peshawar in Pakistan is surrounded by trucks laden with the belon-gings of Afghan refugees who had come to Pakistan since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Many are born to refugee parents, who have never seen Afghanistan. The Afghan Government is having difficulty in dealing with the returning influx. In Peshawar in Pakistan long established Afghan businesses are shutting down, their owners forced to sell their goods and property worth millions of dollars at throw away prices.

The process in Peshawar involves issuing temporary travel documents to Afghans, after destroyingtheir “proof of registration cards”, which will become invalid from November 15. Nearly one million Afghans refugees are considered by Pakistanis as a source of crime, unemployment and militancy, living in teeming slums breeding diseases like polio virus, which has nearly been eradicated elsewhere.

It is a poor time for the Afghan refugees to return. Their flood has driven up rents and food prices in Jalalabad, the big Afghan city up the road from Peshawar. In 2015, the Governor of Nangarhar, the capital of Jalalabad province, said he did not want Afghan refugees from different provinces to settle there. But the Afghan Government is encouraging them to return, with promises of land and has difficulties with those who leave the country to escape fighting with the Taliban. A bitter winter lies ahead and humanitarian agencies fear a crisis.

The Afghan refugees have to uproot themselves from Pakistan, where they had settled, some doing well in carpet and other businesses. They are uprooting themselves at a heavy cost as some had established profitable businesses in Pakistan. They will have to abandon their properties to go home.

The massacre of 130 school boys in Peshawar in 2014 had prompted the Pakistan Government to announce an action plan to repatriate all refugees, even though no Afghans were reported to have taken part in the attack.

The growing instability in Afghanistan makes it a poor time for refugees to return. The returnees will not find adjustment easy.

The Afghan Government is encouraging the refugees to return, with the slogan “Grass is green on my land”. But it is already struggling to deal with 221,000 people who have had to quit their homes in Afghanistan to escape fighting with Taliban. They have caused a humanitarian crisis.

The author is a veteran journalist who has written extensively on West and Central Asian developments. He also covered the 1962 Yemen war.