Rakshe Kanwal is confronted with a cruel dilemma: follow her husband, who’s been deported from Pakistan to Afghanistan – where he was born and she has never been – or succumb to family pressure and get divorced.
“How can I get divorced from a person with whom I’ve spent half of my life?” she asked. “Even if I get a divorce, what about my children? I don’t want them to go to Afghanistan too, where I believe they will either be killed or forced to join militants.”
Mixed nationality families like Kanwal’s are being torn apart as Pakistan forces Afghan refugees back to their homeland, where the government and allies including the United States are battling the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups.
Afghans have been fleeing war for decades. About 1.4 million have officially taken refuge in Pakistan, while about one million more settled in the country without registering, according to the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR. Many of them married Pakistanis and had children, but Pakistan now says they need to go home, even though the war continues.
Legally, the foreign spouse of a Pakistani man may receive citizenship, along with their children. But the law does not provide the same rights to women, and the government has made no provision for the Afghan husbands of Pakistani women – or their children – to remain in the country.
The Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, which is responsible for Afghan refugees, has received hundreds of requests from Pakistani women to grant their families citizenship, said Aqdas Shaukat, a spokesman.
Instead, Shaukat said his ministry has submitted a proposal to the office of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to provide work permits to Afghan men who are married to Pakistani women.
"The government has decided not to grant citizenship to Afghan men who have married Pakistani women, but may grant them a temporary work permit to legalise their stay in Pakistan and ease their travelling between Pakistan and Afghanistan," he told IRIN.
As yet, there has been no move to provide work permits, Shaukat admitted. He added that the ministry doesn’t have data on the number of Pakistani women married to Afghans, but it is believed to be at least in the thousands.
Shaukat was unable to clarify whether the government would grant citizenship to children of Afghan men and Pakistani women, but so far it has not done so.
Last month, more than a dozen women married to Afghans staged a protest in the city of Peshawar, but there has been no official response to their plight.
In the meantime, authorities continue to exert pressure on Afghan refugees, including “violence, arbitrary arrest, detention and other forms of harassment”, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Shazia Bibi said the police arrested her husband in August and deported him.
“It’s very unfortunate that the government has divided our family,” she said. “My children aren’t willing to go to Afghanistan as they all are studying here, and we also know there are no education facilities in Afghanistan.”
Bibi said her husband was the family’s only breadwinner, but he’s now unemployed in Afghanistan, where the economy has collapsed.
“I’ve already borrowed some money from my brother to pay fees of the children, but obviously we can’t live on others’ income for long,” said Bibi, who is a mother of five.
As the Pakistani authorities ramp up their pressure campaign, Afghans have been streaming over the border by the thousands each day. Already this year, 447,991 have crossed to Afghanistan, according to data provided by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.
What they find when they get there is often misery – violence, homelessness, and unemployment. Yet, many Afghans who remain in Pakistan know they will eventually be forced to leave. The government has set a deadline of March 2017, and they are running out of time and options.
“I have applied for my national identity card and registration of my children a number of times, but was rejected each time,” said Saif-ur-Rehman.
He moved to Pakistan along with his two brothers in 1982, when he was 23 years old. By that time, Afghanistan had turned into a Cold War battleground. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979, while the United States and its allies funneled money and weapons to the mujaheddin, Islamist warriors who battled the Soviets and the country’s communist government.
Like so many Afghan refugees, Rehman made Pakistan his home. He married a woman from Mardan, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, in 1985, and they had three daughters and four sons.
“We are now being pushed to leave Pakistan despite the fact that my wife and children are Pakistani,” he said. “They all are born and raised here.”
(TOP PHOTO: Saif-ur-Rehman, an Afghan refugee who sells vegetables in Mardan, with his sons and a girl relative. CREDIT: Aamir Saeed/IRIN)