Afghanistan is starkly different from what Masooma had imagined. She was just a little girl when her family fled the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s. They left everything they owned behind to look for sanctuary in Pakistan and she has few memories of the place.
But when she found out six months ago that her family were going to be forcibly repatriated to a war-torn country her seven children had never set foot in and she had last seen 30 years ago, she tried to stay positive.
“I had always wondered what life in our own country would be like – I looked forward to my homecoming.”
When her family of 10 finally arrived in Afghanistan, any hope they had died. They were unable to return to the province where Masooma was born due to sustained conflict across the country. With no immediate family in Afghanistan to look out for them and little savings, they ended up in a tented settlement for displaced people. Her children have been out of school for six months as there are no schools near the settlement. Even if there was a school close by, they couldn’t afford the fees, Masooma says, describing how even half a year after returning to Afghanistan her husband has been unable to find work.
The harsh reality is that so many other Afghan refugees are returning from Pakistan the labour market is simply flooded with more people than there are jobs. 250,000 have returned to Afghanistan in the last 10 months.
Her family and other returnees are not the only ones struggling. 600,000 Afghans were internally displaced due to conflict in 2016.
For Matthew Graydon, public information officer at International Organization for Migration (IOM), this should be a clear sign to the Pakistan government that Afghanistan is not safe enough for refugees to be returning. “There are returnees who belong to districts they can’t go back to due to fighting between the Taliban, Daesh and national forces. We are experiencing secondary displacement, or even a third level of displacement,” he explains, adding that fresh conflict is forcing returnee families in some parts of the province to flee the IDP settlements where they previously found sanctuary.
Little thought has also been put into how the returnees – many who have either spent decades in Pakistan building a life or who were born there and thus feel little connection to Afghanistan – will integrate back into Afghan society.
37-year-old Abdul Qadir will not admit it, but his wife Hasiba says that he hasn’t slept in a week. “He spends a lot of time worrying about our future, and how we will afford the next month’s rent,” she says. Qadir returned from Pakistan five months ago with his wife and eight children, most under the age of five. With the little savings they had, they rented a small one room space in Nangarhar, but five months after returning to Afghanistan, Nadir is still struggling to find a job.
Like many Afghan returnees from Pakistan, their lives were uprooted suddenly. In Pakistan, where he spent the last 25 years of his life, Qadir was an imam at a local mosque. “We were poor but with the support of the community, we lived a happy life,” Qadir recalls. “And then five months ago, the police showed up at the mosque and took me with them. I was kept in detention for four nights and asked to leave immediately after they let me go,” he says. They fled Pakistan the very next day.
If it were up to Hasiba, she wouldn’t have left at all. “Our neighbours in Pakistan were very kind and helpful. They were my friends and were like family to us.”
But being an undocumented family meant there was little that anyone could do to protect them from the police who threatened to detain Qadir again if they didn’t go. “They helped us pack, that was all they could do. We left more than our homes behind; it feels as though we left part of our family behind,” says Hasiba.
Qadir’s family is not the only one to be pressured into fleeing the country by the police. In the last few months arrests and other forms of police harassment have been a common pressure tactic to get Afghans to leave.
“Nearly all of them have been forced to leave against their will,” says Graydon describing how 70,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan in just one month last year.
Clashes at the border
There are about 1.5 million documented and over a million undocumentedAfghan refugees (pdf) in Pakistan, and for many years they have assimilated fairly easy into Pakistani community. But anti-refugee rhetoric has grown in the last year following a number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, blamed on Afghans. Politicians started issuing threats last May, when Balochistan’s provincial home minister, Sarfaraz Khan Bugti, declared: “Either the Afghan refugees can return voluntarily, with respect and dignity, or the people of Balochistan can humiliate them and throw them out of the country.”
Relations between a war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan, which hosts the largest Afghan refugee population, have always been strained. Differences over how to tackle regional insurgency came to a head last summer with several days of deadly clashes at the Torkham border crossing, part of a long and porous border that has been a source of tension between the two countries for many years. In February, the Pakistani government closed it indefinitely.
It was when tension between the two nations was at a peak in September 2016 that Masooma’s husband was arrested for not being able produce government-issued refugee documents. “We had heard it happen to other people, but I didn’t think it would happen to us,” she says. “As soon as my husband was detained, I knew we would be asked to leave the country. We had watched other Afghan families leave before us.” A month later when her husband was released, the family were given less than two days to return to Afghanistan, leaving behind everything they had built over the last three decades.
“We didn’t have much; we are poor and lived in a rented house. But it was everything that we had made in all our lives. Our friends, our community we had to leave behind,” she says.
“I was raised with their people, their culture and traditions. I was extremely hurt when we were asked to leave,” she added.
The future for all Afghan refugees is now uncertain, and aid agencies are not optimistic that the situation will improve. Even as trilateral talks between the two countries and the UN are scheduled to take place, organisations such as the IOM and the Norwegian Refugee Council are ramping up their capacities to assist the returnees. It is estimated that there will be over a million expected returnees from Pakistan as well as Iran, along with 450,000 IDPs for this year.
“We are expecting a spike in the returnees once UNHCR resumes its allowance for the documented refugees,” says Graydon referring to the cash scheme that the UN body offered returning Afghans, an allowance of $400 (£326) per person, till they ran out of funding at the beginning of winter.
While it might seem strange that Afghans who have lived as refugees for decades would choose to return to a war-torn country for just $400, in Afghanistan that money could provide a decent financial cushion, and that it is enough of an incentive for some Afghans is also an indicator of the level of police and government harassment in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the families who have already returned continue to try and find their place in the conflict-ridden society they thought they had escaped for good decades earlier.
“I miss my friends in Pakistan,” says Masooma’s 13-year-old daughter Basmina who was born in Pakistan and had never been to Afghanistan before. She understands a little about her status as an undocumented refugee. “I don’t belong to any country,” she adds with sorrow. “And so I don’t think I will be able to see them again.”