As he prepared to return to his homeland after 15 years as a refugee, Hazratullah, a native of Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province, was more anxious than happy. "I don't have a house there and I don't know if I will find any work," he told EurasiaNet about his fears. His concerns reflected the fact that he was a reluctant returnee amid a push by Pakistani officials and international non-governmental organization representatives to promote repatriation.
Hazratullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, was among the first refugees in northwestern Pakistan's Peshawar city to take up a fresh repatriation assistance offer by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For him, the decision to return was shaped more by circumstances beyond his control than by individual initiative. "I can't go around the city because the police will arrest me. I can't find any work so I had no choice but to leave," he said, standing next to his wife and eight children. Their possessions were loaded on a small maroon truck.
Hazratullah earned up to $2 a day whenever he found work as a day laborer mostly in construction. He sees little hope of finding work in his native Deh Bala district of Nangarhar, where the pace of reconstruction is lagging. The years of strain make Hazratullah look far older than his 35 years.
He and his family members are among those who missed an opportunity to obtain Pakistani-government-issued Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, which grants Afghans living in Pakistan three more years of temporary stay. While some 2.1 million Afghan received the cards, it is estimated that over 200,000 missed the opportunity, and they have until mid-April to take advantage of UNHCR's repatriation assistance. The UN agency is providing cash grants to returnees of up to US$ 100 per person.
According to UNHCR figures, 2.8 million Afghans have repatriated with the agency's help since 2002. An additional 300,000 are estimated to have returned without any aid. Still, an array of issues keeps some Afghans from going back home. This year, the repatriation pace started off slowly, but it appears that it is picking up as the weather grows warmer. So far, 18,000 Afghans have returned, according to the official figures compiled as of March 23.
By the end of this summer, the Pakistan government plans to close four refugee camps near the Afghan border, housing a total of 250,000 Afghans. Most of the roughly seven dozen refugee camps in Pakistan are, in effect, overcrowded villages, featuring mud houses and dirt streets. After years in the camps, most residents appear to be well settled. In addition, a large number of Afghans, perhaps a majority of refugees, have found living quarters outside of the camps. Regardless of where they live, most have adapted to their current living conditions, and are thus reluctant to leave.
"A lot of refugees have undergone lifestyle changes. They are used to urban life, electricity and they cannot find that in their places of origin," said Habibullah, a Peshawar-based human rights activist who had studied refugee issues closely. "Pakistan offers more economic stability, and they do not have to pay any taxes."
It's not unusual now for Afghan extended families to have members living both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan an arrangement that helps everyone cope with the ongoing economic and political uncertainty.
Bookseller and printer Asadullah Danish is one such Afghan. While his bothers and parents live in Afghanistan, he has lived in a rented house in Peshawar for a quarter century. His tiny office in the dark allies of Peshawar's historic Qisa Khwani Bazar is a major supplier of literary books to Afghans everywhere.
While his children go to local schools, Danish's business attracts considerable local clientele from among the local ethnic Pashtuns who buy his Pashto-language publications. "People can kill you [inside Afghanistan] and nobody asks any questions," he said of his primary reason for not retuning to his native Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan, the scene of sporadic violence between rival warlords. "People [staying back] have businesses and they want to stay back for education [of their children]."
The timing for a major repatriation push is not fortuitous, some refugee advocates contend. "For the repatriation to be sustainable; there needs to be a pull factor," Mariam Khan, a field coordinator looking after Afghan refugees with the New York-based International Rescue Committee, told EurasiaNet. "There is a range of problems - finding jobs, running water, electricity, healthcare, and land disputes."
If anything, the push factor in Afghanistan seems to be gaining strength. With over 4,000 combatant and civilian deaths, 2006 was the most violent year in Afghanistan since 2001.
Officials from Afghanistan, United States and some of its NATO allies tend to attribute the rising violence to the presence of Taliban sanctuaries in the Pakistan's western borderlands. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Pakistan, meanwhile, blames the large numbers of Afghan refugees for stoking violence and insecurity. "The problem of cross-border militancy is closely related to the presence of over 3 million Afghan refugees.
Abubakar Siddique is EurasiaNets Afghanistan correspondent.