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Afghan Refugees Again On The Run -- This Time From Pakistan

An Afghan refugees school in southwestern Pakistan.
An Afghan refugees school in southwestern Pakistan.

KABUL -- Only a month ago, Naimatullah was running a school for Afghan migrants in the Pakistani town of Sialkot -- a place he had called home for over two decades.

But then one night, Pakistani police stormed his home and ordered his family to leave. When Naimatullah refused, he says police beat him up and detained his younger brother. The next day, the authorities leveled his home, located in a predominately Afghan neighborhood.

Now, Naimatullah finds himself living in squalor in a makeshift refugee camp on the outskirts of the Afghan capital, Kabul. He has no job and lives off the meager handouts he receives from the government and foreign aid groups.

"We don't have shelter, there's no work, and there's no food," says Naimatullah, who lives with his family of six in a cramped camp in Kabul's Pul-e Charkhi district. "Winter is coming and we don't have anything to make a fire with. We face every problem."

Naimatullah -- a stocky, bearded, middle-aged man -- could not return to his native village in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, the scene of the Taliban's bloody summer offensive. He was forced to head to Afghanistan's capital, where he says he has once again become a refugee.

Naimatullah is one of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees to have returned in recent months claiming to have been beaten by police, detained, and evicted from their homes in Pakistan.

Easy Scapegoats

For years, Islamabad has pushed Afghan refugees to return to their homeland, with little success. But that was before the massacre of more than 150 people, the vast majority of them students, at a Peshawar school in December 2014.

Many returning refugees say they have been made scapegoats for that attack, which was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, a group Islamabad has said operates out of Afghanistan.

"There were 1,300 Afghan households in Sialkot," says Naimatullah, who came to Kabul with little more than the clothes on his back. "Within a day, the authorities got rid of all the Afghans in the town. I'm witness to the mass evictions."

Naimatullah says Afghans are being forced out of jobs and homes in urban centers, while refugee camps are being raided by Pakistani authorities making "mass arrests."

There has been a marked rise in the number of returning Afghan refugees in the wake of the attack. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that nearly 90,000 undocumented Afghan refugees have been forced to leave Pakistan since January -- six times the number during the same period last year.

That is partly attributable to a December 31 deadline set by Islamabad for all Afghan refugees to return to their homeland, despite pleas for an extension from Kabul and the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.

But returning refugees are convinced that the Peshawar school attack has accelerated and intensified Pakistani authorities' efforts.

No Legal Protection

Even Afghans with valid refugee documents are reportedly being harassed and forced to leave Pakistan.

One of them is Latifa, a mother of four who was evicted from her home in Darra Adam Khel, a town in northwest Pakistan, where she has resided for nearly 20 years. She says thousands of Afghans are fleeing Pakistan in the face of intimidation and harassment from authorities.

"They destroyed our house. "They came and told us to leave," says Latifa, who arrived in Kabul several months ago. "We pleaded with them to give us more time to move. But one night they brought bulldozers and destroyed our home."

"We managed to save a few of our possessions, but many of our belongings were destroyed," Latifa says as she clings to one of her children. "We didn't have any place to go, so we came here [to Kabul]. But here we have no house, no land, nothing."

Latifa, who is middle-aged, is a native of eastern Logar Province. But like many returnees, soaring violence across Afghanistan has forced her to seek shelter in the relative safety of Kabul.

The UNHCR says it has received information that registered Afghan refugees have been rounded up during police crackdowns since the Peshawar attack. But despite the UNHCR expressing its concerns to the Pakistani government, recent returnees say the crackdown has only intensified.

Too Many With Too Little

The United Nations says there are around 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, 1 million of them unregistered, combining to make up the second-largest refugee population in the world. Pakistan has been home to millions of Afghans for the past three decades, and more than 3.8 million refugees have returned home, according to the UNHCR.

The UNHCR and the Afghan government have pleaded with Islamabad to extend the year-end deadline it set for the return of all Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan. Kabul says its resources are overstretched and that it cannot accommodate such a large number of returnees so quickly.

While politicians in Afghanistan and Pakistan haggle over the issue, the Afghan returnees find themselves as refugees once again -- this time in their own country.

"We want the government to give us shelter, jobs, and tents," Naimatullah says while comforting his young child on his lap. "My children need to go to school."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.