Afghan refugees in Pakistan say a new wave of resentment against them is pushing them to flee. Almost 1,000 Afghans a day have been streaming through the border crossing at Torkham, many saying they were forced out, others worried enough to pick up and leave.
TORKHAM, Afghanistan — First, the Afghan families’ homes were raided by Pakistani policemen wielding sticks. Then the men were hauled off to jail, released only after relatives paid bribes.
When they had nothing left to pay, they said, they were told to leave Pakistan forever and return to Afghanistan — officially their native country, but a land foreign to many Afghan refugees after generations of flight across the border.
Such experiences have become increasingly common for Afghans living in Pakistan after the terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar in December.
Though the attack was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan refugees say it fueled a new wave of resentment against them. Since then, almost 1,000 Afghans a day have been streaming through the border crossing at Torkham, many saying they were forced out, others worried enough to pick up and leave.
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It is not clear if the pressure on Afghans to leave Pakistan is the result of a widespread policy, or if local officials are taking advantage of the situation to expel unwanted refugees, as many Afghans suspect.
But the numbers have clearly been growing. Afghan officials who screen traffic at Torkham report that more than 33,000 undocumented Afghans returned from Pakistan in the first six weeks of 2015 — more than for all of 2014.
Clinging to the backs of trucks, some of the Afghans tried to put on brave faces.
“It’s an honor to come back to my country,” Wazir Khan, 32, said as he and his family lingered in a long line of colorful cargo vehicles awaiting inspection before entering Afghanistan.
Khan was born in Pakistan, and the only lifeline he had to his Afghan homeland was scrawled in blue ink on his left palm: the phone number of an in-law he was supposed to call once he crossed the border. Still, he insisted, “It’s a joyful moment.”
The United Nations says there are nearly 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and there are many more hundreds of thousands of unregistered Afghans living in the country. The Pakistani authorities have long said they would like the Afghans to return home, concerned that their presence on Pakistani soil undermines security.
But some of those who say that they have been driven out in the past two months are registered refugees. Salim, 35, who like many Afghans goes by one name, said that when he showed his refugee card to the police who raided his home in the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, an officer threw it on the ground. “They kept telling us that they have orders to expel all Afghan refugees,” he said.
If true, that would violate international covenants, and the U.N. refugee agency has complained to Pakistan about such episodes after the Peshawar attack. Some rights groups, like Human Rights Watch, have called on Pakistan to halt the apparent expulsions.
“We have got news of registered Afghan refugees being rounded up during police crackdowns after the Peshawar attack and have conveyed our concerns to government counterparts in Islamabad,” a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Babar Baloch, wrote in an email. He added that his agency “was quick in conveying our reservations on the roundups as soon as it began, right after the Peshawar school attack.”
Although Pakistan has denied that an officially supported roundup is under way, at least one official suggested that there was some sort of formal effort to repatriate refugees.
A spokeswoman for Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs ministry, Tasnim Aslam Khan, said at a recent news briefing that the registered refugees were scheduled to leave Pakistan by the end of this year. “We would like to see them return to their country in dignity and on voluntary basis,” she said.
She also said there were indications that places with high concentrations of unregistered Afghan refugees “are being used as terrorist hideouts, and we have to take action.”
The last straw
For Nek Mohammad Khan, a 29-year-old Afghan who left Peshawar with his family in late January, the last straw came after his fourth arrest by the Pakistani authorities. His first arrest came just two days after the Peshawar school attack: The police barged into his home, beating his father and arresting all the men in the family, he said. His Afghan neighbors faced similar treatment.
“Every time I was arrested, they would say, ‘It was because you’re Afghan, and we will kick each and every one of you out of this country for killing our poor Pakistani boys,’ ” he recalled, frustrated because he had felt grief for the families of the students killed at the school.
After each arrest, Khan bribed his way out. But his money finally ran out, and he, his wife and their seven children packed a few possessions and hired a driver to bring them to Afghanistan.
At the Torkham border station, guards have been stunned by the numbers of people crossing into Afghanistan. One high-ranking border official estimated that 300 to 400 families cross daily, well over 1,000 people. They arrive in trucks piled high with beds, chairs, clothes and other household items, with children perched on top.
Throughout the night, long after the border has closed for the day, trucks full of returning Afghans pull up, one border police officer said. “They beg us, ‘Please allow us to come to our country,’ ” the officer said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “So we let them in, and they all say they have been beaten and slapped and told nobody in Pakistan wants them anymore.”
Nowhere to go
Though many returning Afghans have relatives who will take them in, others have nowhere to go. In Jalalabad, the closest big city on the Afghan side of Torkham, 15 families pitched tents along a canal several weeks ago, lacking any other recourse. Their children pulled turnips from a nearby field, their most reliable source of food.
They all come from the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir, where Afghans settled more than 35 years ago, fleeing the Soviet invasion.
In their pockets, the men carry handwritten notes, bearing a government stamp, which they received in a police station after they had been arrested. Each one states that the person has entered into an “agreement” to leave. Some of the slips of paper direct the bearer to head “toward Afghanistan.”
A few miles from the border, at a way station maintained by the International Organization of Migration, an intergovernmental group, an 8-year-old boy named Qutuz asked where his family was headed.
“We are going to the homeland we are from,” his mother, Pari Gul, explained. But in an interview, she said, “It feels like we are exiled from our house and we have nothing.”