Umer Ali travels to the Pakistani border city of Peshawar for the first in Refugees Deeply’s ‘Return to Afghanistan’ series, finding that the forced return of thousands of Afghan refugees is breaking up marriages and dividing families.
Ameer Muhammad is tall and handsome, with a ready smile and typical Pashtun politeness. He works at a construction site in an upscale neighborhood of Peshawar, a Pakistani city on the border with Afghanistan, but he knows it’s the last thing he will build in the country where he was born.
Ameer, in his early thirties, owns a truck and some construction tools. They represent a lifetime’s work that he must now sell for a pittance because buyers in Peshawar know that he, like most others of Afghan origin, has to leave.
“I was born here, in Pakistan,” he says. “My mother was pregnant with me when our family was forced to flee our home in Afghanistan.”
Local police have warned his family, like countless other Afghan families, that they must leave Pakistan before a government-mandated deadline. Exploitation of refugees is rife, and friends of the family have sold their homes for less than a third of their value.
Ameer’s family comes from the Pashtun-dominated Bati Kot district of Nangarhar Province, where he plans to move in the next few weeks. “It’s a home I have never been to,” he says.
Nangarhar is not just a strange place to Ameer, it is a dangerous one. The province has now become a stronghold for ISIS in Afghanistan. Some 200 ISIS militants were killed there recently in a military offensive led by the Afghan government.
After decades of accumulating Afghan refugees in return for international funding, Pakistan is now pushing them back. It is a controversial and sweeping move that is destroying livelihoods, tearing apart marriages, dividing families and violating basic human rights.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, an ensuing insurgency turned into a full-fledged jihadist movement, supported and funded by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, among others.
This prompted generations of Afghans to migrate to Iran and Pakistan. According to the United Nations, some 6.2 million Afghans had migrated to Iran and Pakistan by the end of 1989 – the year the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. Constant conflicts and fresh invasions have kept topping up these numbers.
Aided heavily by the U.N. Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, Pakistan hosts around 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, while the unregistered numbers may go as high as 2.7 million. Pakistan’s government receives $133 million annually from the UNHCR.
But these people have become hostages to Pakistan’s deteriorating relations with Afghanistan.
A series of militant attacks on targets in Pakistan, including the murder of 141 students and teachers at a military school in late 2014, saw refugee camps on both sides of the porous border denounced as safe havens for terrorists by senior Pakistani officials.
In June, relations between the two countries deteriorated further when the two countries’ security forces exchanged fire, killing one Afghan soldier and a Pakistan army officer.
Meanwhile anti-Afghan and anti-refugee rhetoric has exploded on social media, with people baying to “kick them out.” Twitter users used hashtags like #AfghanRefugeesThreatToPak and #KickOutAfghans, which trended for days in Pakistan.
Registered Afghan refugees have lived under the constant threat that their residency permits would lose their validity ever since the government announced that the paperwork would be invalid at the end of December 2015. But backdoor diplomatic efforts and an executive intervention from Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif saw the expiration date for the permits pushed to the end of 2016.
Unspecified action against the unregistered Afghan refugees is due after November 15. Most observers expect this to mean a wholesale roundup. Thousands of people of Afghan origin have already been arrested and accused of involvement in kidnapping and criminal gangs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Dr. Imran Zaib, chief commissioner for Afghan refugees, said more than 90,000 registered refugees were repatriated during July and August. He has publicly set a target of 240,000 Afghan refugees to be sent back to Afghanistan every month until December.
Truck driver Haji Zareen is one of the statistics. He has packed whatever he owns and is moving to Afghanistan in the coming days.
“I was seven when we moved here, and for me, Pakistan has been my home ever since. I’m going to Jalalabad,” he says, sipping his kahwah, a traditional green tea. “I have no clue about what I’m going to do there – no business, nothing,” he adds.
A father of eight, he worries for his children, who surround him as he talks. “They are very afraid of going to a land totally foreign to them.”
Afghan children born in Pakistan do not qualify for citizenship, Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, recently told parliament. Even those born to a Pakistani mother and Afghan father would not qualify.
Shamim Bibi’s husband and sons have been banished from Pakistan. Shamim is Pakistani and her husband is Afghan, making her one of the many Pakistani women facing the dilemma of separation from their families.
“Our families have divided now. They have sent my husband to Afghanistan, [and he] has also taken my sons along with him,” she told reporters outside the Peshawar Press Club during a protest.
Mona Naseer, a noted Pakistani human rights advocate and blogger, explains: “In Pakistan, the law allows a foreign woman who marries a Pakistani to acquire the nationality of her husband, but the converse is not permitted. A foreign man cannot acquire the citizenship of Pakistan by marrying a Pakistani woman, and that is the reason the Afghan men married to Pakistani women are being kicked out of the country.”
Peshawar resident Roohullah Razaqi is one of them.
“I was born and educated here. Now that I am being forced to leave, I’m uncertain about my future,” he says. “My wife is here from Peshawar, and I am left with no choice. She prefers getting divorced over moving with me to Afghanistan.”
Prime Minister Sharif addressed the United Nations in September, stating that a “dignified repatriation of Afghan refugees” was underway. Yet this rhetoric clashes with Afghan students’ reality. The University of Peshawar has revoked the degrees of many Afghan students, as hundreds are expelled from schools and colleges.
Adil is one such student, now at the metric stage of his schooling, equivalent to the 10th grade. He’s set to leave Pakistan with his family October 15. He fears losing his Urdu language skills along with everything else. “My medium of instruction until now has been Urdu, which is not being taught in Afghanistan,” he says. “My whole future is at stake and nobody seems to care.”