Growing insecurity in Afghanistan is the main impediment to the return of more than 2 million registered Afghans still living in Pakistan today.
“No, I won’t go,” Ghayassudin, a 26-year-old taxi driver in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and home to most of the country’s Afghan refugee population, said. “There is no peace there. It’s simply not safe.”
Raqibullah, 36, another refugee who came to Pakistan following the Soviet invasion of his country in 1979 and hasn’t returned since, echoed that view.
“I came when I was a child, so Pakistan is my home. Why would I go if it continues to be dangerous?” he asked.
A change in mindset
According to a joint report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Pakistani government earlier this year, of the 2.15 million registered Afghans in the country, the vast majority (82 percent) indicated they did not intend to return to Afghanistan in the near future.
The most important factors cited for their reluctance to return were security (41 percent), shelter (30 percent) and livelihoods (24 percent).
This marks a change in the mindset from the 2005 census, when security was the third biggest reason for not repatriating, after lack of shelter and livelihoods.
Lack of access to land was also a major impediment to return, with 89 percent of registered Afghans in the country claiming to be landless.
Those intending to return originated primarily from the provinces of Nangarhar, Laghman, Kabul, Baghlan, Kunduz, and Logar. The majority (84 percent) were of Pashtoon ethnicity currently resident in NWFP, the report said.
Since the collapse of the Taliban regime in December 2001, about 3.2 million Afghans have returned to their homeland from Pakistan - the vast majority with assistance from UNHCR.
Uneven pattern of return
Hopeful of their country’s future peace and stability, in 2002, the first year of the voluntary repatriation programme, 1.6 million Afghans repatriated from Pakistan.
However, those numbers have since dropped off, as more and more Afghans find themselves increasingly disillusioned with the rate of progress being made back home - both on the security and socio-economic fronts.
In 2003, around 340,000 Afghans returned, more than 380,000 in 2004, around 450,000 in 2005, and around 132,000 in 2006.
To date, 340,000 Afghans have returned in 2007, but this was due largely to an increase in the monetary grant provided per returnee, as well as an announcement by the government that those Afghans that did not register with the authorities and did not leave the country within a designated period would be deemed illegal.
The refugee agency launched a grace period of assisted repatriation for unregistered refugees on 1 March that ended on 15 April. More than 200,000 Afghans, mostly unregistered, left Pakistan for Afghanistan in this period.
Concerns about security, access
For Afghans like Ghayassudin and Raqibullah, given prevailing security conditions back home, going back now simply does not make sense - a fact the UNHCR is well aware of, and continues to monitor.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
“No, I won’t go [to Afghanistan]. There is no peace there. It’s simply not safe.”
Afghan taxi driver Ghayassudin
“Currently there are major concerns about security developments in Helmand, Kandahar and the Ghazni area,” Maryann Maguire, a UNHCR spokeswoman, told IRIN from Kabul, referring to those areas where a strong Taliban presence has emerged. “In recent weeks there has also been a stark deterioration of security in Kunar Province, as well as in [the provinces of] Wardak and Logar and the central region in general,” she said.
Citing issues of access, she added: “It is difficult to assess the needs, provide information and carry out the mandate of the UNHCR with returnees as well as IDPs [internally displaced persons] in conditions where the safety of staff cannot be guaranteed.”
Also of great importance was the restricted access that UNHCR was increasingly experiencing in areas considered “safe” until a few weeks ago. “This is having a direct impact on our ability to reach returnees who potentially need help the most,” Maguire said.
Moreover, with security appearing to deteriorate further, the agency noted a lack of objective information in helping people consider their options.
The priority for the UNHCR is to have safe and unfettered access to all regions of Afghanistan where there are returnees or a potential for returns.
“Many initiatives have taken place on a local level between UNHCR and key players to ensure that security is guaranteed. But this is a long and complicated process and much more needs to be done. Furthermore, security is a collective effort which is the primary responsibility of the government of Afghanistan,” Maguire said.