Destitute Afghans return to a country at war

Sun Engel Rasmussen

Almost 40 years ago, Allah Noor took his family to a safe haven in Pakistan, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Last week he returned, to a country at war. At the crack of dawn, when his family crossed the border to Afghanistan on a truck heaving with all their possessions, they were greeted by the roar of fighter planes returning from nightly bombing missions. A white surveillance blimp hovered above.
Noor’s family is among more than 100,000 Afghans who have been coerced out of Pakistan since July. Pakistan’s government has ordered all Afghan migrants and refugees to leave – about 3 million people. Roughly 250,000 of their number have left so far this year, according to figures from the World Food Programme, in the biggest eviction of Afghans in decades. Whole neighbourhoods are being uprooted, often second- or third-generation refugees with little connection to Afghanistan. Many arrive in their place of origin to find no help from international agencies. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Ocha, expects 600,000 Afghans to have returned by the end of the year. With another 250,000 people newly displaced by the Afghan conflict, the UN warned last month of a looming humanitarian crisis. Yet the response from international aid agencies has been slow and insufficient.
Noor, 62, is the family’s only adult male. Two sons live in Saudi Arabia and the UK. In the back of the truck sat burqa-clad women, squeezed among a thicket of possessions: beds, a rusty floor fan, a child’s bicycle and piles of firewood for winter. In the middle of it all, a gaggle of geese bounced with the harsh movements of the truck. It was a punishing, day-long ride. “Where are you going?” children shouted from the roadside, as the truck circumvented Jalalabad and steered toward Noor’s native Laghman province.
Noor said that his village had been totally destroyed. “There might be peace for a month now and then,” he reflected, “but there is still fighting in our village.” He had to find a new plot of land, a school for the children, and then wait for remittances from his sons abroad. Still, the Noor family is relatively lucky. Upon arrival, they received $3,600 (£2,825) from the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, for the nine family members who were registered as refugees in Pakistan. The remaining nine were ineligible for the $400 cash grant because they were undocumented, as are about two-thirds of returnees.
Due to inadequate funding, the International Organisation for Migration is only able to provide the most vulnerable of undocumented returnees, about 30%, with tents, kitchen utensils, food and other basic needs. In September, Ocha launched a flash appeal for $152m to assist the returning families. The influx of returnees has caught international agencies by surprise, and the response has been hampered by inertia, according to Will Carter, head of programme with the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the main organisations assisting in Nangarhar. In addition, he said, the response is skewed. The UNHCR receives the vast majority of funds but only assists people registered as refugees in Pakistan. “The difference in survival chances is jarring, and frankly it’s bizarre that an agency mandated to protect refugees appears to care for just half of them. It’s callous,” said Carter. The UNHCR argues it is only mandated to help registered refugees. The agency is also responsible for distributing personal registration cards to refugees in Pakistan, which they have not done since 2007.
For decades, Pakistan has been a safe haven for Afghans, with whom they share a cultural kinship. Yet the large Afghan refugee communities are difficult to monitor, and Pakistani authorities have claimed they harboured militants and criminals, but it is unclear what triggered the recent crackdown. Some have speculated that Pakistan is using Afghans as pawns in a dispute with the US. Noor, meanwhile, thought the harassment had more to do with the Afghan government’s recent diplomatic outreach to Pakistan’s rival. “Ever since Afghanistan began improving relations with India, they called us ‘sons of India’”, he said. — Courtesy: The Guardian

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