KARACHI, PAKISTAN—A new crisis is brewing along the volatile Pakistan-Afghanistan border, with more than 2 million Afghan refugees facing the prospect of being uprooted and sent back to their embattled homeland.
That process picked up steam this month as Pakistan began demolishing one of the largest of the refugee settlements, the Jalozai refugee camp, which has held as many as 70,000 Afghans. In all, Pakistan wants to repatriate as many as 2.4 million Afghans by 2009, a goal that has been challenged by the United Nations refugee agency.
In the decades since millions of Afghan refugees flooded across the border during the Soviet occupation, the refugee camps grew into seemingly permanent settlements. And many of the residents have known no other home or are too young to remember their Afghan villages. Pakistan sees the camps not only as a burden but as a security threat, harboring Taliban radicals and their sympathizers.
But for many Afghans, this is yet another trauma.
Shaheed Khan was just 14 years old when he came to Pakistan in 1982, following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and settled in the Jalozai camp, located some 15 miles south of Peshawar. Now 40 and a father of three daughters and two sons, he faces the uncertainty of going back to Afghanistan. "I know I am returning to the hell, but I have no other option," he says, taking shelter with his wife and children under plastic sheeting to ward off heavy rains.
Khan and his family were heading to the northeastern Logar province he left as a child. Their journey, though, was barely started when it was interrupted by the temporary closure of the road leading to Torkham, a key border crossing point, because of fighting between pro-Taliban militants and pro-government tribesmen. But there is no turning back, since Pakistan authorities have started tearing down the Jalozai camp, beginning with hundreds of makeshift shops that supplied camp residents and provided work.
Khan, who got married at Jalozai camp at age 24 to a daughter of a relative who fled to Pakistan in 1983, says his children were "born and raised" at Jalozai and do not know anything about Afghanistan. "We deliberately did not tell them about the circumstances that forced us to leave our country," says Khan, who briefly visited his home village in 1998, during the Taliban regime, to assess whether he and his family could return and live there.
What he found then, he says, was "nothing, except hunger. The war had wiped out everything, even the livestock. I stayed there for a week but could not find much reason to come back along with my family to live, though the law and order situation was much better." But he adds, "merely law and order cannot fill your stomach." At the Jalozai camp, he says, "at least my children were going to school as I had been earning much better than I could do in Afghanistan."
However, the Afghan Commissionerate, a Pakistani government organization that deals with the Afghan refugees' affairs, claims that the refugees had been given many warnings of the plans to shut down the camp on April 15. Many, however, ignored the notices and refused to vacate the camp for Afghanistan.
"They [refugees] have to go back. This is the best option they have," says an official at the Afghan Commissionerate, Fareedullah Khan [no relation to Shaheed Khan. Many Pashtun tribal members adopt the name Khan.] "We have razed only makeshift shops. We have halted our plans of demolishing [their] houses after negotiations with refugee elders. They have assured us that they will persuade the refugees to vacate the camp much sooner."
Afzaal Khan, an elderly refugee, says that most of the refugees do not have homes to return to in Afghanistan. "Homes of most of the refugees have been demolished in the two wars. First by Russians, and then by Americans," he says.
Over 320,000 Afghan refugees have returned to the country under a repatriation program, which started in March 2002 and is run by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Under the program, each refugee receives a transportation allowance of $20, or $100 per family of five, on arrival in Afghanistan.
However, independent sources say that many subsequently returned to Pakistan in the wake of fighting between NATO troops and Taliban militants in southern and northeastern parts of Afghanistan.
"I have no plans to risk my and my family's life by going back to Afghanistan", says Afzaal Khan, whose shop was demolished. Instead, he says he will try to shift to some other city of Pakistan.
Khan says when he came to this camp in 1980, there were only a few hundred refugees taking shelter here. "Now over 70,000 refugees are living here, and almost half of them have never seen Afghanistan," he says.
Fareedullah Khan, the Afghan Commissionerate official, disputes that claim. "Most of them have a house there [in Afghanistan]. Some members of their families live here in Pakistan, while some of them live there," he says.
A UNHCR spokesperson, Rabia Ali, says that the agency provides assistance only to those refugees who agree to repatriate or to those deemed too vulnerable and register themselves for relocation to another camp. Some Afghans say Pakistani authorities try to prevent Afghans from moving elsewhere in Pakistan.
Afghan refugees are often viewed as a security threat and are involved in street crimes in Pakistan. According to Peshawar police, Afghan refugees are involved in 30 percent of the street crimes in the North-West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan. Intelligence agencies claim that Taliban militants are hiding in and operating from the refugee camps.
Ishtiaq Ahmad, an associate professor of international relations at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, questions the decision to uproot the refugees. "One thing is for sure: Only a few will return to Afghanistan. Most of them will be spread out in other urban centers. And it will strengthen the security quagmire, as it will be very difficult to monitor them," he says. "It's surprising to me why the government has taken such an illogical and unpractical decision. They [refugees] will never return to Afghanistan as [the] security situation is not that conducive there," he added.
Sardar Alam Bacha, who owns a small utility store in the Saddar market area of Peshawar, thinks that the refugees should not be kicked out of the country in a humiliating manner. "This is against Islamic and Pashtun [tribal] traditions. If they want to leave voluntarily, then it is OK," he says. "But if they can't go back because of the poor law-and-order situation there, they should be allowed to stay for some more time."