PESHAWAR, Pakistan – On a recent fall morning, hundreds of families pile atop trucks packed to the brim, clutching what remains of their life’s possessions beneath them. The vehicles line up alongside Grand Trunk Road outside the United Nations Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Peshawar, Pakistan. From there, they’ll make the over 35-mile-long journey to the Torkham border crossing into Afghanistan. The scene, just after dawn, is not unusual for this part of the country these days. The crowds of people frequenting the breakfast stalls at the center are just some of the Afghan refugees being forced to return to their home country from Pakistan daily in large numbers in recent months.
The map above shows some of the routes taken by families interviewed for this article.
Refugees from Afghanistan have funneled into Pakistan through various periods of turmoil and unrest in recent decades. Between the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, conflicts between the Afghan Taliban and other extremist groups and tensions during the Soviet war, many Afghans have been forced to leave the country for safety and economic reasons, with a large portion escaping to Pakistan over the years.
Now, as many of these refugees and their children, some born and raised in Pakistan, return to Afghanistan, they are forced to do so under the pressure of a national deadline imposed by the Pakistani government. The deadline, issued earlier this year, mandates that all legally registered Afghan refugees return to Afghanistan before March 31, or face deportation. The date of the deadline has been moved several times, and some speculate that it may be moved again. But since the initial announcement, there has been an increase in the number of Afghans repatriating early to Afghanistan, some of whom have faced backlash in Pakistan as security forces reportedly intimidate them.
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“Unprecedented numbers of Afghans are fleeing increased incidents of violence, arbitrary arrest, detention and other forms of harassment,” The International Organization for Migration noted in a press release issued in September.
“The situation is dire and we expect it to become far worse as winter approaches,” IOM Chief of Mission and Special Envoy to Afghanistan Laurence Hart was quoted as saying in the release. “These people are between a rock and a hard place. They have nowhere else to go. They have already lost everything and now they are entering a country in conflict, as the winter is about to hit, and they are seeking protection from a government and the international community that is stretched thin trying to cope with existing needs.”
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which functions as a U.N. emergency organizing body, already estimates that around 538,100 Afghans have returned to Afghanistan so far this year.
And some refugees are worried about the political turmoil they are being thrown in the middle of and the danger that it presents for them, especially those who are moving to Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan, where fighting and violent clashes still take place on a regular basis.
“We are the victims of political tensions between the two governments,” Marjan Khan, one of the refugees migrating back to Afghanistan, said.
The WorldPost spoke to some of these refugees at a UNHCR repatriation center in Pakistan about their fears, their hopes and their visions for the future.
Roz Qul, 55, and his family have mixed feelings about returning to Afghanistan. Though they appreciate Pakistan, they have become fed up with the prejudice they face here because of their Afghan roots.
“Pakistan is paradise,” Qul said. “It’s our home, but we are badly treated in the[se] last days.”
While discrimination against the Afghan population in the country has occurred since the migrants began arriving here, the political and social backlash against them has picked up in the last few years, particularly following the now infamous Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar in 2014.
Just last year, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing what it described as increased hostility and brutality from Pakistani police towards Afghan refugees, a feeling that was echoed by the refugees that it interviewed.
Qul can attest to those feelings firsthand as well, and it’s those negative experiences that have made the prospect of leaving more bearable for the Qul clan.
“We were harassed [by the] police and civilians as well,” he explained. “[We are] happy to leave.”
Marjan Khan, 33, stands beside a loaded truck as he prepares to get breakfast for his family. He and his kids spent the night on one of them, dozing off under the open sky.
Khan, born in Pakistan’s Kohat district, roughly 46 miles away from Peshawar, is Afghan by heritage. He is traveling to Kaga village in the Khogyani district of Afghanistan, a country he has yet to touch foot in. For Khan, Pakistan is his only home.
“I have never been to Afghanistan,” he said. “It is unfamiliar territory for me.”
Khan’s parents were born in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, but like many other Afghan families, his parents became victims of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in 1979, and were forced to leave the country. Afghan families like Khan’s lost friends, family members and their belongings during the war, and Khan’s family was among the approximately 3 million refugees who fled to Pakistan as a result of the unrest in the first few years of the conflict.
Abdul Samad, 50, has lived in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan, some 200 miles outside of Peshawar, for more than two decades. He’s made a life for himself and his family here, but now he’s getting ready to leave that behind for war-torn Afghanistan.
Samad’s been at the UNHCR center for more than 10 days now awaiting evacuation, and his journey is being made even more painful because his family will soon be split up.
Although they’re trying desperately to find an alternative, Samad’s son and daughter-in-law won’t be crossing over the border with him this trip. His son, who is married to a Pakistani woman, is looking for a way to stay with his wife, but Samad fears he will be unable to find a means to do so after the deadline and will eventually be forced to part with her as well.
“My son has been married [to] a Pakistani woman and [is] facing a cruel situation,” he said. “Mixed nationality families are being torn apart as Pakistani officials [are] ordered to repatriate Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan.”
Foreign nationals married to Pakistani men are eligible for citizenship, but the law does not work the same way when the woman is the Pakistani national, as reported by the Pakistani news outlet, Dawn. And thus far no law has been made to accommodate the specific circumstances of Afghan refugees married to Pakistani nationals.
For his son, Samad said, this likely means deportation ― and maybe even divorce ― by March 31.
Either way, Samad and the rest of the family plan to wait for him in Afghanistan.
Musa Khan, 32, sits at the UNHCR repatriation center scrambling to finish his paperwork. But with children running around and women in blue shuttlecock burqas that match his wife’s, it’s hard for him to find his family to finish their application.
Frustrated and anxious, the incomplete forms do little to reassure him. For Khan and his family, life in Afghanistan already seems daunting.
“We are going to our native Paktika province where there is a war still going on,” he said. “I have four children. I am worried about their schooling. We were happy in Peshawar.”
“We [might be] unable to send [our kids] to school,” he said. “Life was better here, but our [future is] uncertain in Afghanistan.”
Abdul Rahim, 35, has lived his entire life in Mardan, Pakistan, just over 35 miles outside of Peshawar. Now he’s moving to his ancestral hometown in northeastern Kunar, a rugged and violent part of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a region within Pakistan that is semi-autonomous and has been deemed by policy experts as a ground for terrorist training camps.
Rahim, like others The WorldPost talked to, feels isolated and removed from Afghanistan. Pakistan is home, a home he now feels betrayed by.
“We are leaving Pakistan without our consent,” he said. “We consider it our hometown.”
As he sits on top of one of the moving trucks, belongings and memories stuffed in bags, he voices frustration that he and the other refugees have become helpless pawns in a regional war. And for Rahim, who will now live at the border of one of the more volatile parts of the war-torn country, this reality weighs especially heavy in his mind.
“My family is the victim of political situation between the two countries, but we have no choice,” he said.