KABUL – As if the armed conflict between Afghan government forces supported by the American-led coalition and the Taliban were not enough, Afghanistan is faced with a crisis that it wishes it could call a success: the Big Return.
From Jalalabad to Herat – indeed, all over northern Afghanistan – you can see the signs of Afghans returning from exile. Colorful Pakistani trucks are everywhere, carrying beams and wooden window, door, and bed frames, with wives and children sitting on top.
The scale of the displacement was enormous: at the height of the exodus, up to six million Afghans were living outside their country, mainly in Pakistan and Iran. Roughly three-quarters of them fled after the Soviet invasion in 1979, with smaller numbers escaping the rule of pro-Soviet president Najibullah or the subsequent 1992-1996 civil war between the various mujahideen parties and then the rule of the Taliban. Some – having supported the Taliban – fled after their leaders were ousted when the Northern Alliance entered Kabul in November 2001.
Since then, more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees have already come home. Yet those still remaining beyond Afghanistan’s borders are the biggest “caseload” of refugees in the world, and there are many Afghan migrants, too, especially in Iran.
Pakistan is home to most remaining Afghan refugees, perhaps as many as 1.9 million. When a registration of all Afghan refugees in Pakistan was carried out in 2007, almost half of them were living in camps. Three decades after being established, these “camps” are now villages of mud-plastered houses with high walls around the compounds.
Since three-quarters of the refugees are under the age of 28, most have never seen their parents’ homeland. They were born and raised in Pakistan, and most speak only Pashto, one of the two official Afghan languages. Pashto is spoken by the tribes on both sides of the Durand Line, the border drawn at the end of the nineteenth century by the British colonial rulers of India. Despite these ethnic ties, and despite having hosted them for 30 years, Pakistan does not officially allow Afghans to integrate locally. They have no prospects for citizenship, no work permits, and no access to public health and education. So their only good choice is “return.”
The frontier region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the main theater of the “war on terror.” Here one finds Tora Bora, the last known home address of Osama bin Laden. The area’s volatile situation provides Pakistan’s government an additional argument to insist that all refugees be repatriated – because, given their complicated tribal loyalties, they may constitute a domestic security threat.
According to tripartite agreements between the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, four of the largest camps in Pakistan are to be closed and all Afghans living there repatriated. While in theory the repatriation should be safe and voluntary, the reality is different. Return is often dangerous, and the fact that alternative locations are almost uninhabitable means it is an induced choice.
After much negotiation, Pakistani authorities agreed to a compromise. One camp – Katcha Ghari is already closed and in 2008, only the biggest of the remaining camps – Jalozai, which once had 110,000 inhabitants – would be closed. A few days after the deadline of April 15, bulldozers moved in, flattening the shops, previously dismantled by the departing Afghan merchants. Returns from Pakistan were at 20,000 persons a week at the beginning of May 2008 and of the 70.000 Afghans who returned since the beginning of the year until end of May, over 50,000 came from Jalozai camp, according to UNHCR data.
But unless officials of all the countries involved, including the United States, admit that Afghanistan is dangerous and unprepared to absorb the Big Return, they cannot start taking steps to remedy the situation and guarantee that repatriations will be both safe and voluntary.