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Afghan Refugees Flock Home Amid Claims Of Intimidation, Harassment

An Afghan refugee family stands by trucks loaded with their belongings as they wait to go back to Afghanistan on the outskirts of Peshawar.

Afghan refugees are again on the run -- this time from the safe haven they sought in Pakistan.

Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have returned across the border in recent months, with many claiming to have been beaten by police, detained, and evicted from their homes in Pakistan.

For years, Islamabad 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.

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

Amid claims that authorities coerced them to leave, statistics show there has been a marked rise in returning refugees in the wake of the attack. The International Organization for Migration says that in the following month more than 33,000 undocumented Afghan refugees returned to Afghanistan -- double the number for all of 2014.

One of them is Agha Khan, an Afghan refugee who had lived in Pakistan ever since civil war erupted in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. Khan, now in Kabul, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that many refugees are fleeing Pakistan for fear of being detained by police and intelligence officers.

"In the past two months, 63 Afghan refugees I knew were detained by the Pakistanis for no reason," says Khan, who used to reside in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar, where the majority of Afghan refugees live. "Nobody knows where they are now."

Babar Baluch, a spokesman for the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, said the organization has received news that registered Afghan refugees have been rounded up during police crackdowns following the Peshawar attack. He said the UNHCR has expressed its concerns to the Pakistani government and received assurances that no refugees will be forced to repatriate.

An Afghan refugee, recently returned from Pakistan, waits at a UNHCR center in Jalalabad. Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have returned, with many claiming to have been beaten by police, detained, and evicted from their homes in Pakistan.
An Afghan refugee, recently returned from Pakistan, waits at a UNHCR center in Jalalabad. Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have returned, with many claiming to have been beaten by police, detained, and evicted from their homes in Pakistan.

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.

Human Rights Watch said in late February that the Pakistani government had an obligation to protect all Afghans in the country, including those not registered as refugees, from harassment and other abuses.

"Pakistani officials should not be scapegoating Afghans because of the Taliban's atrocities in Peshawar," said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It is inhumane, not to mention unlawful, to return Afghans to places they may face harm and not protect them from harassment and abuse."

"Pakistan's government is tarnishing the country's well-deserved reputation for hospitality toward refugees by tolerating the punitive and potentially unlawful coercive repatriation of Afghan refugees," added Kine. "The government needs to defend the rights of its Afghan population and ensure that local authorities aren't carrying out vindictive reprisals for an atrocity the Afghan refugees bear no responsibility for."

Abdul Wali, an Afghan refugee in Islamabad, says refugees have been targeted even if they have legal status in the country.

"Pakistani police told me that every officer has been ordered to detain 50 Afghan refugees, regardless of whether they have refugee status or not," he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Police and intelligence agents have raided several refugee camps -- which authorities say harbor Taliban militants -- since the Peshawar school attack.

Pakistan has rejected the idea that it is expelling Afghan refugees from the country. But at least one Pakistani official indicated there was an official effort to return refugees to Afghanistan. Tasnim Aslam Khan, spokeswoman for Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a recent news conference that all registered refugees would leave by the end of the year.

"We would like to see them return to their country in dignity and on a voluntary basis," said Khan, who added that areas with large populations of unregistered Afghan refugees were being used as "terrorist hideouts, and we have to take action."

An official from Pakistan's Ministry of States and Frontier Regions indicated that unregistered refugees would be forcibly sent back immediately.

"The registered refugees can return by the end of this year," the unidentified official was quoted by the German news agency dpa as saying. "But the unregistered are illegal aliens and have no right to stay."

In the Hangu district of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, authorities on February 11 announced that all registered Afghan refugees were required to move to a government-supervised camp and that it would deport any undocumented Afghan refugees.

Rafiullah Baydar, spokesman for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the expulsion of Afghan refugees would be against international law. He added that Afghan refugees should not suffer for the action of Pakistani militants.

International right groups are worried that Afghanistan is not equipped to handle such a large influx of refugees.

Abdul Jalil, a refugee in Peshawar, indicates they might not have a choice. He says conditions are getting so bad that he and his family will have to leave Pakistan soon.

"We are having a lot of problems," he says. "Police took my uncle away. We are asking [Afghan President] Ashraf Ghani to think about our plight and make the conditions right for our return."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
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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.