“The [harassment] has increased,” said Mawlawi Jalaludeen, an elder from Chakdara, an overcrowded refugee camp in Pakistan’s Lower Dir Agency, home to at least 2,500 Afghans. Many of them fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and settled in mud homes in Pakistan, opening businesses and having children.
After decades of relative comfort, Jalaludeen said life in Pakistan became difficult in recent years. And now, “it has become impossible for us to live there. That’s why we left.”
Analysts say the harassment is a sign of waning tolerance on the part of Pakistani authorities, who continue to shelter 1.7 million registered refugees and 1-2 million additional unregistered Afghans.
“The government of Pakistan wants to put a lot of pressure on Afghanis to return, more than they ever had before,” said Ilija Torodovic, head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, some 80km from the Pakistani border. “There will be a lot of turning up the heat. It won’t be turned up immediately, but little by little - there will be more and more pressure. And based on what returning refugees are telling us, we’re already seeing it.”
IRIN spoke to more than a dozen recently returned Afghan men who detailed arbitrary arrests and detentions, disappearances, beatings, and disturbing visits by intelligence officers - allegedly either accusing them of supporting Pakistani insurgents or trying to recruit them to fight the Afghan government.
Analysts say the Afghan and Pakistani governments have been waging a proxy war by harbouring and supporting insurgents - and refugees are being caught in the middle.
Accounts of refugees
Qiamat Gul, a taxi driver, said the Pakistani military entered his home in Chakdara camp at night, searched “everything” and threw his belongings outside. They accused him of helping the Pakistani Taliban, which has officially been fighting a guerilla war against the military since 2007. Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of harbouring and supporting the militants.
“This [harassment] was the reason we left our country and went to Pakistan in the first place. Now we’re facing the same situation there,” Gul said.
Another returnee, Abdel Qadir, said he was faced with the opposite challenge, when intelligence agencies asked him to join the Afghan Taliban, allegedly supported by the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.
“It is a step by step process. First they come, they talk to you. They ask you for the information … Then gradually they ask you for people they can train and send [to Afghanistan].”
“They say, ‘Either you do what we say, or you leave the country.’”
One returnee, Janat Gul, from Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, told IRIN recruits are taken in covered trucks to a training camp in the desert called Qariyat - which he himself attended during Soviet years - before being sent to Afghanistan to fight.
The tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a hotbed of insurgency, which has increased in recent years. Afghans in Chakdara have long been accustomed to interrogation or detention when they leave their refugee camp.
“They always discriminate against us,” said Jalaludeen. “They ask ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you returning to your country?’ Without doing anything wrong, we are arrested. It’s illegal.”
But the home invasions are new, the returnees said, and have a particularly aggressive flavour. Women who try to resist the arrests of their husbands are beaten, the returnees said, and children are arrested along with their fathers.
Afghans who are forced out of the country are then asked for bribes at checkpoints leading to the border, according to Ghulam Haidar Faqirzai, director of the Afghan department of refugees and repatriation for Nangarhar Province, which borders Pakistan. In one case, he told IRIN, children were held hostage until a ransom was paid.
Jalaluldeen, Qiamat Gul, Abdel Qadir and Janat Gul are among people from 106 families who left Pakistan for Afghanistan about three months ago, according to an assessment by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Their departure coincided with a military operation in the area, in which “Pakistan was accusing them of being on one side or another,” one aid worker told IRIN.
Faqirzai said the Pakistani government intends to close the refugee camps “by any means”. His ministry is bracing for an influx of returnees.
|This [harassment] was the reason we left our country and went to Pakistan in the first place. Now we’re facing the same situation there|
IOM said only six of the families had proof that they were registered refugees in Pakistan, but UNHCR says registered refugees have equally been victims of the increased harassment.
Many of the returnees IRIN spoke to fled in the middle of the night without telling their own family, so as not to be noticed by security forces, which arrest, detain and sometimes beat Afghans who leave the camp without authorization, they said, or because their names were on lists of people targeted by security officials.
“I was arrested along with my five sons and jailed for four and a half months,” said Jalaludeen, who had lived in Chakdara for almost 30 years. “There was no specific reason why we were arrested. They are just giving us trouble so that we leave.”
He waved the Proof of Residence cards belonging to members of his community, which permit them to live in Pakistan until the end of 2012, but said they meant nothing to the Pakistani authorities - a view shared by others.
“Even if you go [to Pakistan] legally, you are harassed,” said Safi Sadruddin Hasam, officer-in-charge of the IOM office in Jalalabad.
“They don’t care about registered refugees,” Faqirzai added.
The returnees said Pakistani authorities visited homes with lists, seeking Afghans who returned to their country to be soldiers, police officers or civil servants. Their families - still living in Pakistan - are seen to be Afghan government spies, Faqirzai told IRIN.
“I was asked to give a list of all those Afghans whose sons were in the military in Afghanistan. And to inform them when they came to Pakistan,” Abdel Qadir said. “They were asking me for intelligence information.”
Bakhtaly was born in the Pakistani refugee camp but came to Afghanistan when he grew up to serve in the army and make a living. Pakistani intelligence approached his family and asked to see him within 16 days.
“I told my parents if I go [back to Pakistan], we will be arrested or killed.”
Instead, he urged his family to return to an Afghanistan that cannot host them properly.
Some of those who returned are living in tents, or three families to a home, because they no longer own land in Afghanistan and cannot earn enough of a living here to pay rent.
A divided Pakistan
The Pakistani government denied any attempt to pressure refugees to leave.
“We have allowed these Afghan refugees to fully participate in economic activities in Pakistan for over three decades. This is a testimony to our hospitality,” said Abdul Basit, spokesperson of the Pakistani Foreign Ministry in Islamabad. “You cannot harass one family or two families or 400 families - that is not going to resolve this issue. That logically makes no sense.”
Photo: Heba Aly/IRIN
|Ihsanullah Kotal, an Afghan refugee, returned in 2009 after being detained in Pakistan several times|
“Our plans are very clear. We would like these refugees to go back to their countries as quickly as possible. But obviously, we’d like them to return with honour and dignity.”
Warning against an exaggeration of the problem, another Pakistani official said what he called “questioning” was perfectly normal, and the prerogative of every state.
“If three or four million people live somewhere, and 10 or 20 or 30 of them are asked, it’s no big issue,” he told IRIN. “Every week, I hear of Pakistanis being arrested or detained [in Afghanistan]. These are just normal problems. If I’m not offended, why are those Afghans offended?... They shouldn’t forget that they are living in a foreign land where they are supposed to follow the local laws.”
Observers say a schism between the military and civilian branches of the Pakistani government - currently engaged in a power struggle - may be part of the problem.
“[Harassment of Afghan refugees] is not the government policy. But it might be the ISI policy or military policy,” one aid worker said.
Millions of Afghan refugees returned from Pakistan in 2002-4, after the Afghan Taliban was ousted from power, but returns trickled to a mere 50,000 last year, in accordance with a trend of decline in recent years, due to increasing insecurity and lack of services in Afghanistan.
According to interviews and assessments of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, UNHCR expects the number of returnees to rise to 300,000 this year - double its initial planning figures - due to increased harassment in Pakistan and an unpredictable future for refugees there, among other factors.
Residency cards for Afghans in Pakistan expire at the end of 2012, and observers are skeptical that Pakistan will extend them as it has in past years.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres was in Islamabad last month urging the Pakistani government to extend the deadline, but observers say Pakistan is completely unpredictable.
“You think you’re talking the same language, and then they turn around and do something completely different,” said one aid worker.
Refugees who do not want to be stuck in limbo may opt to return to Afghanistan, UNHCR’s Torodovic said. Others say they may have no choice.
“[In the months leading up to the deadline], a lot of Afghans will be deported from Pakistan,” Majroom, a Jalalabad field coordinator with the NGO International Rescue Committee, told IRIN.
UNHCR says Pakistan has historically respected the voluntary nature of returns for registered refugees.
"What is guaranteed is that there won't be any policy of involuntary expulsion of refugees," Guterres told UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph in a recent interview.
But some are not so sure.
“Progressively, the message that Islamabad is sending is that we are done putting up with this burden,” said Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan.
Besides, those who returned due to alleged harassment do not see their relocation as “voluntary”: “It was my choice,” said Ihsanullah Kotwal, a refugee who returned in 2009 after several detentions in Pakistan. “But at the same time, I had no choice.”
For more, visit IRIN's in-depth: From pillar to post – the plight of Afghans abroad