Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Caught Up in Regional Tensions? The mass return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan

Jelena Bjelica 15 min

More than half a million Afghan refugees have returned from Pakistan since July 2016, a huge number, on a scale not seen for a decade. United Nations agencies and human rights organisations have blamed fear of harassment and oppression by the Pakistani authorities, or in the case of undocumented refugees, fear of expulsion for the mass returns. Pakistani hostility towards Afghan refugees had already been growing, but has strengthened markedly as friendship between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s old enemy, India, blossomed this year. The Afghan government, reports AAN’s Jelena Bjelica, has also been encouraging Afghans to come home (with reporting from Jalalabad by AAN’s Fazal Muzhary and input from Thomas Ruttig).

The returnee crisis: facts and consequences

By mid-December, more than half a million Afghans had crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan – all officially called ‘returnees’ even if they were born in Pakistan. According to the UN’s humanitarian coordination agency, UNOCHA, 370,102 were ‘registered’ , ie registered as refugees with the Pakistani authorities and UNHCR, and 244,309 were ‘undocumented’. The majority (96 per cent of the undocumented and 75 per cent of the registered) had been living in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

Most – more than 90 per cent ­– of those 614,411 people moved to Afghanistan after July 2016. Between July and early November 2016, UNOCHA reported, it was not uncommon to see as many as 4,000 people – sometimes more – pass through the border crossings at Torkham and Spin Boldak in a single day. Many returned at short notice, after receiving 48-hour and/or a week’s notice to leave the country. Many had been living in Pakistan since the Soviet invasion when millions of Afghan refugees fled the country. The younger ‘returnees’ include those who have never lived in Afghanistan. Some are even the children of those who have never lived in Afghanistan. Many of the returning Afghans now find themselves in a desperate situation in their homeland, with neither jobs or proper housing.

Returns since 2001

Pakistan has been a generous, albeit sometimes reluctant host to Afghan refugees for almost four decades. Since 2001, more than 3.9 million Afghan refugees have returned home from Pakistan. There was a huge push to bring the refugees home by UNHCR, international donors and the Afghan government after the fall of the Taleban ­– it was seen as proof that the new regime was popular and in the first years after the Taleban regime was overthrown, conditions also seemed amenable. That left, according to UNHCR estimates, about 2.6 million Afghans still residing in Pakistan (1.5 million registered and one million unregistered). (1)

In 2007, after the Pakistan authorities started providing Afghans with individualised computerised identity cards called Proof of Registration (PoR), the number of voluntary returns decreased. Although the cards were granted for a limited period (the first POR cards expired in December 2009), they did enable holders to open bank accounts, purchase mobile phone SIM cards and get driving licenses. This improved the lives of many Afghans in Pakistan. Following the second extension of PoR cards from December 2009 to June 2013, in combination with the ‘wait and see’ approach taken by refugees, themselves, during the security transition phase (ie the withdrawal of foreign troops in the period 2010 to 2014) and with insecurity growing in Afghanistan, the number of returns decreased even further (see table below).

Credit: AAN

Caption: Decrease in number of returns after the introduction of PoR cards in 2007.

*Source IOM, UNHCR and OCHA figures. The table shows combined annual figure for assisted returns of registered Afghan refugees and undocumented Afghan returnees, except for the period 2008 to 2011 for which only assisted returns are presented based on the available data.

**From 1 January to mid-December 2016

All that changed at the end of 2014 when, on 16 December 2014, the Pakistani Taleban, Tehrik-e Taleban Pakistan attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar. They killed 145 people, including 132 children. Although the attack was carried out by a Pakistani armed organisation, the authorities said its masterminds were operating from safe havens on the Afghan side of the border (in Nuristan or Kunar) and that Afghan citizens had been among the attackers (see media reporting here and here). The Afghan government rejected these statements. (2) As a result, they became more hostile towards Afghan refugees.

The hostility was manifested in many ways, resulting in both soft and hard pressure. The most obvious soft pressure was changing the PoR cards extensions policy. Since December 2015, the cards have been extended for periods of six months only (to June 2016 and then to December 2016), and then, more recently for just three months (until March 2017). (3) Even these short-term extensions were the result of international pressure on the Pakistani authorities.

At the same time, the Pakistan government’s approach to Afghan refugees has become more violent. Some 52,000 Afghans living in Peshawar returned to Afghanistan in the first three months of that year, following a series of house raids and eviction notices (see AAN reporting) and IOM’s annual report for the number of returns of undocumented Afghans in 2015; these were four times higher than in 2014).

Abuses in 2015 by the Pakistani police were well documented, including in a Human Rights Watch report in which Afghans “described repeated threats, frequent detentions, regular demands for bribes, and occasional violence by Pakistani police in the months since the Peshawar school attack.” Human Rights Watch continued: “The abuse has prompted many Afghans to return to an uncertain fate in Afghanistan; others remained in Pakistan but live in fear. Many of those we interviewed had PoR cards, but this provided little protection against police harassment and abuse.”

Police harassments, threats and extortion in Pakistan continued into 2016 (see this HRW press release from early July 2016). The result was more people crossing the border. UN agencies estimate that while in 2015, on average, 366 individuals returned per day, by August 2016 this number had risen to 476 per day. One cause was an intensification of Islamabad’s harsh policy towards Afghans living in Pakistan, prompted by wider political dynamics. It seems also that Pakistan is targeting Afghan refugees because of anger over Afghanistan’s growing ties with India.

A joint ‘Afghanistan-India front’ against Pakistan?

During President Hamed Karzai’s rule, relations between India and Afghanistan were cordial. When his successor, Ashraf Ghani, took power in 2014, he initially reached out to Pakistan with the hope that its government – especially following the Peshawar massacre – would assist in brokering an end to the Taleban insurgency. Diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to bring the Afghan Taleban to the negotiating table and drop their refusal to directly talk with the Afghan government was built up by the United States and China through the mechanism of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). But the initiative failed in the turmoil around the leaked demise of Taleban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar and the Taleban’s withdrawal from the July 2015 Murree talks (AAN analysis of this initiative here and here).

In Kabul, this was interpreted as the continuation of Islamabad’s ‘non-constructive’ approach toward Afghanistan and the Taleban. Ghani turned increasingly to India, in order to push his development agenda. Ties have particularly been active since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi first visited Kabul on 25 December 2015 and inaugurated the new parliament building and handed over four Mi-25 attack helicopters to the Afghan air force. Then, on 25 May 2016, Modi invited Ghani to join him for a ceremony in Tehran in which he pledged 500 million USD to help develop Chabahar port in Iran, some 75 kilometres to the west of Pakistan’s Chinese-built port of Gwadar, at the end of the new ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’. Ghani was a witness to this deal which also involves the development of road and rail infrastructure from Chabahar through Iran to Afghanistan. For Afghan traders, and the government in Kabul, if all goes well, the route through Iran will not only shorten ways to the important markets at the Persian-Arabian Gulf, but also significantly lessen land-locked Afghanistan’s decades-long dependence on transit routes through Pakistan. In particular, reliance on the port of Karachi should be diminished. It currently enjoys a near monopolistic position as Afghanistan’s ‘door on the world’. The Afghan hope is that this would also significantly – but by no means fully – diminish Pakistan’s ability to use the bilateral border regime as a means to pressurise Afghanistan.

India’s largess on the aid front has also been noticeable. On 3 June 2016, Ghani and Modi inaugurated the Salma Dam, a hydro-power station in Herat province. Although it had been commissioned during the Karzai period, it was touted by some Afghans as a symbol of growing bilateral ties. Then, on 15 September 2016, Modi pledged one billion US dollars in development aid to Afghanistan at a meeting with Ghani held in New Delhi. Both countries boycotted the summit meeting of the regional organisation SAARC in November 2016, which was held in Pakistan (4) and, ahead of a meeting in Amritsar for the Heart of Asia initiative on 3 December 2016, Modi and Ghani announced a plan to create a joint air corridor to enhance bilateral trade following Pakistan’s reluctance to allow transit rights through its territory. Ahead of the meeting, there were calls in India, as one analyst from the influential daily, The Hindu, put it to “corner Pakistan” as a “state sponsor of terrorism” and blacklist Pakistan-based terrorist groups held responsible for attacks in India. In Amritsar, itself, despite some moderate language from Afghanistan and Pakistan on terrorism (5), President Ghani snubbed Islamabad’s offer of 500 million US dollars of financial assistance, telling Islamabad’s top advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, that Pakistan had better use it to contain extremism at home. In India, there were some triumphal responses to the Amritsar meeting. (6)

For Pakistan, however, unhappiness at the flourishing India-Afghanistan friendship has translated into open hostility towards Afghan refugees and the sharp rise in returns seen in the second half of the year. Returning Afghan refugees traced the upsurge in enmity to the inauguration of the Salma Dam; after that, they said Pakistani police started to insult them, calling them “sons of Hindus” and “nieces of Narendra Modi” (more on this below). The Taleban, who are supported by Pakistan, but also have a constituency among Afghan refugees, also issued two statements on 21 and 29 July 2016 underlining that the Pakistani authorities should not treat the Afghan refugees in a political way and that ordinary Afghan refugees should not become victims of politics. (see here).

Zakhilwal’s campaign

At about the same time, the Afghan government launched, for the first time in recent history, a campaign to encourage its citizens to abandon their refugee life in Pakistan. On 17 July 2016, the Afghan Ministry of Tribal Affairs and its diplomatic mission in Peshawar jointly launched a social media campaign called Khpel Watan, Gul Watan (‘One’s own homeland, a dear (literally flower) homeland’) aimed at encouraging Afghans to return ‘home’. The video message was posted ahead of a tripartite meeting between Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR officials held in Bhurban in Pakistan on 19 July 2016.

The launch of the campaign happened to coincide with a six-month extension of the Proof of Registration cards (until the end of 2016). Despite the extension and possibly because of the campaign, there was a record high of returnees in early August 2016 – 8,500 returnees in 72 hours, according to the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation.

The Afghan government’s spin of the situation was certainly daring. Ghani’s Special Envoy and Ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Zakhelwal, in an interview with Pajhwok, published on 6 August 2016, said that the “newly launched project ‘Khpal Watan Gul Watan’ aimed at encouraging refugees to repatriate had [given] positive results,” and that, “earlier the Afghani [sic] migrants in Pakistan did not feel for the country, but now they had realised that they should live in dignity in their own country.” He added that “as many as 30 million people live in Afghanistan and that the return of two or three million more people would not have such a bad impact on the current situation in the country.” He said Afghanistan has realised its weaknesses which were “economy, transit route and refugees” and that Islamabad had been able to use them as “pressure buttons.” Kabul was working hard in these areas, he said, and would gradually rid itself of dependency on Pakistan. “We have strengthened economic relations with Central Asian states, and signed the Chabahar pact to find access to sea.” In the long term, for example, the influx of largely Pashtun returnees could have an impact on population and voter figures (the refugees abroad, who were able to vote in the first electoral cycle 2004/05, have been unable to do so in the most recent one). There is also speculation that individual politicians might be building a constituency.

Responding to the pressure: the human side of the story

After living for 35 years in the Shabqadar area of Peshawar, Najibullah left, in June 2016 within 20 hours of the police telling him to go. His family members had refugee cards which could have eventually been extended till the end of the year, but they decided to return to Afghanistan and have now settled in Kabul:

I had worked at a printing press in the village of Shabqadar. One day, the police had made a public announcement that Afghan refugees should leave and go to Torkham the following day by 8 o’clock in the morning. The police said that if the Afghans fail to leave for Torkham within the deadline, they would destroy their houses with bulldozers and force them to leave. I got a call from home… I asked around… people told me that it was the truth […] Our Pakistani neighbours wanted us to stay. Some elders from the area and I went to the police and asked the police to give us a more reasonable deadline. The police said they would respect the elders and give us a few more days, but we could not stay beyond the new deadline. After that day, I decided to go to the UNHCR office to register our family for the return to Afghanistan.

A bit apologetically, Najibullah also explained that the lack of resources and property in Afghanistan had been the main reason for his family’s long stay in Pakistan. Najibullah’s family received 350 USD per person and travel expenses to Afghanistan from UNHCR. Recalling his journey back to Afghanistan, Najibullah said the Afghan border forces had behaved well and welcomed his family at Torkham. He also said the Afghan government had promised to distribute plots to landless returnees, but that “no steps have so far been taken in this regard.” The biggest problem for Najibullah is rent. “The rents went up and it is not easy for us to find reasonable houses that we can afford,” he told AAN.

‘Sons of Hindus’

The overall atmosphere in Peshawar in summer 2016 had also fortified Najibullah’s resolve to return to Afghanistan. In his words, the ordinary people of Pakistan have changed and the usual cordial and friendly relationship has been replaced by hatred. “This was the result of the Pakistani government propaganda that Afghanistan is a great supporter of India, and the story that the fighting in Torkham [on 13 June 2016] (7) was not with the Afghan soldiers, but with the Indian soldiers who instigated the fighting against Pakistanis,” Najibullah explained to AAN.

In the past, if the police would see an Afghan they would call him refugee, but they would not call an Afghan refugee ‘the son of a Hindu.’ […] They [now] say Afghans are the servants of the Indian government. The Pakistan government has brainwashed the public and now the public sees Afghan refugees as their worst enemy […] The ordinary people in Pakistan label Afghans as Hindus and friends of Hindus. They say the Afghans have joined hands with the Indians against Pakistan.

Najibullah also pointed out that Afghanistan’s closeness to India was often used as an excuse for extortion and harassment by the Pakistani police. “When people would show the refugee card to the police, they would say there was nothing written on the card and force the men to pay money to them.”

Another man, Gul Khan, who is in his late twenties and also recently returned to Afghanistan was more specific about when the insults started. He told AAN that after the inauguration of the Salma Dam in Herat on 3 June 2016, “the Pakistani police started addressing us as ‘sons of Hindus’,” and added that “even the ordinary Pakistanis would call Afghans ‘nieces of Narendra Modi’.” Gul Khan had lived in Pakistan as an undocumented migrant. He left for Afghanistan after the Pakistani police announced that undocumented refugees had to leave within four days or they would be arrested and deported to Afghanistan. He also reported that, on the way from Peshawar to Torkham, the Pakistani army asked him for bribe:

I paid 6000 rupees (50 USD) at four checkpoints on the road and an additional 1500 rupees (12 USD) to the border police at the Torkham Gate. If I did not give them the money, they would check all my belongings.

Shaista Gul in his forties, who returned to Afghanistan on 1 September 2016 because, he said, of Pakistani police and soldiers’ night raids on Afghan refugees’ houses, also reported that an exacerbation of insults directed at Afghan refugees had made him leave:

One day I was on the bus. The police stopped the bus and asked the driver if there was any Hindu on the bus. The bus driver said there was none, but the policeman took an Afghan man from the bus and said: “This is the Hindu I was looking for!” […] The locals also turned against Afghans after the fighting between Afghan border police and the Pakistani border police at Torkham [on 13 June 2016]. Everywhere in Peshawar, the ordinary people would taunt Afghans for friendship with India.

A plea and many concerns

For many refugees the issue is simple – they want more time to bring their affairs in Pakistan to an end before having to leave. On 31 August 2016, 120 elders from refugee communities in Pakistan came to Kabul for a first-of-its-kind jirga organised by the Afghan government. They pleaded with the president and with the chief executive to intervene at the highest levels of the Pakistani government. They wanted them to mitigate the current push factors which are forcing refugees out and to allow them more time to wrap up their affairs and prepare for return in safety and dignity. An UN official who was at the meeting told AAN that Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah had been willing to talk with the Pakistan government to slow down the pace of return, but the tense relations between him and Ghani at this time did not allow for the “constructive approach” needed to address this issue.

President Ghani, meanwhile, pledged to the tribal elders that he would “ensure that returning Afghans could obtain land and housing, invest in small businesses, send children to school, have access to basic services and settle in any part of the country.” He also presented an exclusive housing project which he said was to be developed in some districts of Nangrahar and Kabul province. The print-out of the housing project, seen by AAN, showed 3D-generated images of a fancy neighbourhood of two-storey buildings, even featuring some modern cars parked on the imagined streets. The project is authored by the governmental Capital Region Independent Development Authority (CRIDA), but on the agency’s website, the betterment of the lives of returnees is not mentioned among its expected outcomes. The Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation website also offers no clues as to what the government is planning on this issue.

This initiative, if it goes ahead, would most probably be implemented under the Afghan government’s land distribution scheme for returnees and IDPs adopted in 2005 by Presidential Decree 104. However, the distribution of land to returnees has one of the poorest of records of any governmental programme. The Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) and other anti-corruption agencies have found that the land distribution programme has been exceptionally corrupt and ineffective. (For in-depth analysis of land distribution scheme for landless returnees and IDPs, see AAN analysis here). There is no sign yet that this has changed.

Another issue for looking after the returnees is insufficient funding. UN agencies’ Flash Appeal in September 2016, a call for additional funding and a warning of the growing humanitarian crisis, resulted in pledges worth 82 million US dollars against the target of 152 million US dollars. The main issue now, however, is absorption capacity and the willingness of the Afghan government to address the needs of this particularly vulnerable population. According to UN officials working on this issue, the government understands the gravity of the situation, but they question its sincerity to act. “They caught on that this is serious and it is massive,” a senior UN official told AAN, “but it could end up in lip service”.

For now, there is a bit of a breathing space. The number of returns of documented refugees diminished in mid-December. From 11 to 17 December, UNHCR reported that no registered refugees from Pakistan had returned, as a ‘winter pause’ in its repatriation programme, through which registered refugees are returning, came into full effect. In the same period, IOM reported just 2,032 undocumented Afghans had returned or were deported from Pakistan, a relatively low number.

Despite the pledges of aid, many of those who have already returned are simply having to fend for themselves. With winter upon them, many of the poorest face a lack of housing, a lack of jobs and a lack of help.

Edited by Kate Clark and Thomas Ruttig



(1) Between 1979 and 1992, over six million Afghan refugees entered Pakistan and Iran, fleeing the violence of the Soviet invasion and the ensuing civil war, UNHCR data shows. After Soviet forces withdrew from the country in 1989, two million Afghans returned to their homeland. However, beginning in the mid- 1990s, factional violence and later the Taliban’s capture of major areas of the country and widespread drought renewed the exodus. Although the US-led intervention in late 2001 initially caused further displacement, many refugees returned to Afghanistan, in part because of a massive campaign to get them home after the fall of the Taleban and increasingly difficult conditions refugees faced in Pakistan and Iran. See Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction Report (SIGAR): “Afghan Refugees and Returnees: Corruption and Lack of Afghan Ministerial Capacity Have Prevented Implementation of a Long-term Refugee Strategy”, August 2015, available here.

(2) The participation of Afghan citizen, however, seems to be not fully confirmed. The information, attributed to Pakistan security sources, was only reported by a few Pakistani outlets, not including the country’s main English-language media (see here).

The alleged mastermind of the Peshawar school attack was confirmed killed by US authorities in a US airstrike on Afghan territory in July 2016. Earlier, there were also arrests of suspects in Afghanistan by the local authorities, after tip-offs by Pakistan (media report here).

(3) At the beginning, the Pakistani government issued Afghan refugees with PoR cards for a period of two years or longer. The first PoR cards issued in 2007 were valid until December 2009. The second extension was until June 2013, the third until December 2015. The PoR cards issuance policy became more ad-hoc and erratic in 2016 when the Pakistan government started extending the cards for only short periods of time – until June 2016, then December 2016 and most recently March 2017. Approximately 1.5 million Afghans are registered in Pakistan and have POR cards.

(4) In July 2016, former US ambassador to Afghanistan (the Afghan-born, Zalmay Khalilzad) in an US Congress hearing had called for sanctions against Pakistan, followed by two US senators moving such a bill in Congress. Parts of Indian and Afghan public opinion supported this (see for example here).

(5) Ghani took a multilateral approach toward combating terrorism at the opening event (part of his speech in English in this video):

We propose an Asian or international regime – whatever is acceptable to our neighbour in Pakistan – to verify cross-frontier activities and terrorist operations.

He also said he did not want to engage in a “blame game.” This was reflected in the Amritsar Declaration (full text here) in which all participants – including Pakistan –expressed their

(…) welcome and support [for] Afghanistan’s initiative in taking the lead in exploring a regional counter-terror strategy [and] strongly call for concerted regional and international cooperation to ensure elimination of terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, including dismantling of terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens in the Heart of Asia region.

The document also names a number of terrorist groups, many of them operating in Pakistan. Pakistan’s top foreign affairs adviser present at the conference, Sartaj Aziz, nevertheless described it as balanced; he also added “that the tradition of blame game should be ended”.

(6) One Indian analyst concluded that the Amritsar conference had:

fulfilled two main objectives of India i.e. isolating Pakistan at the diplomatic level and strengthening the bond with its extended neighbour Afghanistan. After boycotting the SAARC summit meeting in Pakistan, this is the second successful attempt this year by India to isolate Pakistan and corner it on the terrorism issue.

See also this opinion piece.

(7) The Afghan and Pakistani border guards at the Torkham border crossing exchanged fire on 13 June 2016. The incident erupted after the installation of a border gate by Pakistan. A commander of the Afghan Border Police in east General Ayub Hussein Khel told Khaama press that an Afghan policeman lost his life and five others were wounded during the clash, which lasted for several hours. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations, the military’s communications arm, reported that one “Pakistani soldier was injured due to Afghan firing.”




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