Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Refugee Focus

The number of Afghan refugees returning home following the over throw of the Taleban has surpassed all expectations.
By the.iwpr
The two-lane road heading toward the Khyber Pass is crowded with gaudily painted trucks loaded high with Afghans, their clothes and furniture - and even the weathered wooden poles that once held up the roofs of their mud houses in Pakistan. The flood of returning refugees has stunned aid workers. The UN had hoped that around 400,000 would go home in 2002, but it took little more than two months for that estimate to be surpassed. By mid June, more than one million people had returned. While foreign observers worry about the stability of the new post-Taleban government in Afghanistan and US-led forces continue a largely futile search for members of the previous regime, vast numbers of refugees in Pakistan have concluded it is safe to go back. In one of a cluster of settlements 40 km east of Peshawar, Farid said his class of 11 students at Umroo bin Jazam high school had shrunk to four. "Three hundred families are going every day by truck," he said. The convoys come from as far away as Islamabad, which lies a couple of hundred km from the border. Some refugee camps now lie dusty and deserted - eerily silent after 20 years of teeming activity. There are streets of ruined houses with only the walls still standing. The precious roof poles have been pulled out and salvaged by refugees returning to their largely treeless home country. The repatriation is being assisted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, which provides up to 100 US dollars for a returning family. Once home, some food aid is also available to tide them over until they can find work or grow a new crop. However, some refugees claim that it can cost 200 dollars for a truck to carry the family and their belongings back to Afghanistan, so it would seem that international money is not a prime factor in the migration. "UNHCR is just facilitating the return if refugees go of their own accord. We will not help any programme that involves repatriation by force," said Ayub Khawarin, a spokesman for the agency. Afghans routinely cite Pakistani pressure as a reason for their departure, and the government of that country has made it very clear that, having hosted more than three million refugees for two decades, it would now like to see the back of them. Some will be reluctant to leave. Many older people are now well established in Pakistan, while thousands of young people were born there and have never set foot on Afghan soil. No matter how deep the roots these people have put down, they may have little choice but to leave. The carpet factories established by Afghan refugees became one of the region's main industries. But now most employees have left to work in their homeland. This is not the only trade to dry up. Those who sold goods to the refugees have seen their customers disappear almost overnight. Firooz-u-Din runs a shop reselling items salvaged from the rubbish in Kohat, part of the tribal belt between Pakistan and Afghanistan. "My business has fallen by more than 50 per cent. I went to Jalalabad a few days ago and found a shop there. I will move myself in soon," he told IWPR. For most refugees, there is little to leave behind in Pakistan. Life has not been easy for them. Hazrat Mohammad is waiting to be processed at Peshawar's UNHCR centre before returning to the Afghan province of Paghman. "Due to our financial situation I sent my six-year-old son to Rawalpindi in Pakistan to work, and sometimes I worked selling fruit and vegetables along the side of the road," he said. "Now I just want to go home." On Peshawar's Speen Jumat street, Afghan labourers arrive early in the morning, hoping for a day of work that will earn them 80 to 100 rupees - about a dollar and a half. "Today is the third day I have come here and stayed until noon, but there is no work," said Nazar Mohammad, who lives in Kababian camp but is originally from Konar province. Assadullah is a 12-year-old boy who spends his days selling plastic in Peshawar's Board bazaar. "I was nine-years-old when my father died and since then I have been selling plastic to support my little sister Aishah and my mother with the 20 or 30 rupees that I make each day," he said. Most of the displaced worked hard to recreate their old lives and communities while living in the sprawling camps. Afghans from particular areas grouped together, effectively transplanting entire villages. Anyone who walked through the dirt alleyways between the mud-walled houses of Nasir Bagh - one of the oldest camps on the edge of Peshawar - would find it uncannily similar to an Afghan settlement. The camps developed their own shops, schools and clinics. However, the foreign aid that followed the US funds which poured in to fuel the war against the Soviet invaders dwindled when the fighting descended into a brutal civil war that seemingly had no relevance to the rest of the world. Today, Nasir Bagh, which once had about 100,000 residents, now has only a few thousand left. In Toor, in the tribal area of Mardan, remaining Afghans told IWPR that 80 per cent had already gone home - and they intended to follow soon. Pashtuns - the ethnic group that had backed the Taleban - have been more reluctant to return than the ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who backed the Northern Alliance that now holds political dominance in Afghanistan. But even they are prepared to return if peace in their homeland proves real. That is the key question hanging over the repatriation. Twenty-two years after Afghans began flooding out of their country, they are waiting to see if the Loya Jirga - the traditional gathering of delegates from across Afghanistan to elect a new government - will bring the stability craved by so many. "We're hoping that a good government will emerge," said Faqeer Gul, a native of Herat province who now lives in Kacha Garri, a largely Pashtun camp on the edge of. "If this doesn't , there will be a war and more bloodshed." The threat of further conflict is a real one. In the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, a local warlord broods over the central government's decision to remove him as governor of Khost. Padshah Khan demonstrates his anger by firing rockets into the city, and his demands to be reinstated are a reminder to Afghan refugees sitting over the border that peace is not guaranteed. While the number of returnees has been significant so far, it will turn into a deluge if the Loya Jirga agrees on a new government that will provide a secure the sort of stability necessary of the country. The return of ex-king Zahir Shah from his 29 years of exile has boosted confidence, and all the main players know the promised billions of dollars in reconstruction aid will never appear if the country falls back into war. However, fear of a government dominated by the ethnic minorities who fought the former Taleban rulers - a movement rooted in the Pashtun tribes - continues to haunt the population. "I don't have any hope because there is so much fanaticism there," said Sayeda Jan, a member of the committee administering the huge Kacha Garri refugee camp. "If a person says anything against the government he is called a member of al-Qaeda or another opposition group. The interim administration has done nothing to reverse this." Health supervisor Mohammad Jan has similar worries about the ethnic balance of the region. "In the Guldara and Shakardara districts of Kabul, land belonging to the Nasir Pashtun clan has been divided between the people of the Tajik Panjshir and northern Afghanistan," he said. "They have killed or driven Pashtuns from their houses in revenge for the Taleban's treatment of the northern people." But pressure is growing on even the most reluctant of refugees to go home. Shops have lost their customers, factories their workers and many teachers have been told their schools are closing. Afghan University in Peshawar will send most of its students to faculties in Afghanistan in 2003, and expects to close all Pakistan operations by the following year. Those who choose to stay in the camps are finding it increasingly dangerous to live in the maze of mud-walled houses. "All of us are from Laghman province and we have plans to go in July," said Mashoolq Khan in Hazrat Bilal camp. "Now the situation is very bad and we feel our lives are in danger. We are trying to provide security for ourselves by guarding our houses but a night never passes without a robbery." The Pakistani authorities are placing further pressure on the remaining refugees. A concerted effort to remove them began a year ago but was suspended after the September 11 attacks and the subsequent US action in Afghanistan But the recent exodus from Nasir Bagh was driven as much by a Pakistani order to vacate as by the lure of Afghanistan.Thousands of refugees have been jailed in Islamabad and neighbouring Rawalpindi, adding to the feeling of fear. "Each day many Afghan refugees are being trapped by police here in Rawalpindi," claimed Abdul Hameed, himself a displaced person. "One must pay them 4,000-5,000 rupees - around 75 dollars - or they will be taken to prisons where a poor man cannot afford court charges. We cannot come out of our houses and get our necessities by sending out our children." Pakistani officials had accused the refugees of terrorist activity after security personnel were killed and others injured by assailants in Rawalpindi. One of the injured policemen had claimed his attackers looked Afghan. Since then police have been demanding that Afghans produce a passport with a Pakistani visa or face jail. Very few of the displaced have such documents because Pakistan originally accepted them all with minimal formalities. Only family heads were issued with identity cards and only those living at the camps received official documentation. Many Afghan prisoners in Rawalpindi and Islamabad have sought help from the Afghan embassy. Its charge d'affaires Rahmatullah Mosa Ghazi told IWPR he had received assurances from senior Pakistani officials that the refugees would be freed. But rumours are rife in the Afghan community that none will be allowed to remain after the Loya Jirga makes its decision. While many Afghans are taking all their possessions, some have left their houses in Pakistan intact, leaving keys behind with friends in case they return. But in Nasir Bagh it is a one-way journey - Pakistani authorities have bulldozed the mud walls as soon as the refugees leave and intend to use the land for government housing. The Pakistani position has increased the need for Afghan leaders to resolve their differences. If things go wrong again, Pakistan will not be throwing out a welcome mat. Those stranded in an inhospitable Pakistan or seeking to escape impoverished Afghanistan will find few opportunities for legal emigration. The smuggling of Afghans abroad by organised crime rings has become an international problem that shows no sign of declining. A year ago Safer al Hussein was in his third year of medical studies at Afghan University and was content to remain with his family in Nasir Bagh and complete his degree. Today his father, who gambled everything to send Hussein abroad in search of a better life, is more impoverished than ever. The smugglers have disappeared with the family money and left the young man stranded in Indonesia. In a telephone call from that country, Hussein told IWPR how his father's efforts to support the family in Peshawar had been hampered by economic difficulties and harassment by Pakistani police. "I did not want to go to a foreign country, but the financial situation of my family and the conditions of life there forced me to go," he said. "That's why my father collected all the money from his business and borrowed even more to send me to any foreign country. I agreed to abandon my education and go abroad in search of an income." In common with thousands of others over the years, Hussein contacted a local agent and asked to be put in touch with those who smuggle humans for profit. Naively, the family agreed to leave the money - 7,500 dollars each for Hussein and four friends - with a supposedly trustworthy moneychanger who would only hand over the funds when Hussain was safely in his destination of Australia. "My friends and I took a bus from Peshawar to Lahore, and from there we went to Indonesia by plane," said Hussein. "I contacted my family when I arrived and was told that the moneychanger and agent had disappeared. We have remained here ever since." It is a familiar story. Some refugees make it through, with the lucky ones winning refugee status and a new life abroad from where they can help those family members left behind. More are left stranded in other poor countries, return empty handed or disappear forever en route. Many ships sink trying to reach Australia while some people are suffocated in containers in Europe. The only big winners in this dangerous game are the traffickers, whose trade in human cargo has made this one of organized crime's biggest money-spinners. The long-running Afghan crisis has presented the smugglers with a golden opportunity. The Soviet invasion of Christmas 1979 started the flood of refugees into neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. The end of the Najibullah regime in 1992 opened a brief window of hope for the millions of Afghans outside their borders. But the bloody internecine power struggle of the mujahedin warlords, which divided the country into fiefdoms and destroyed Kabul, soon sent the returnees scuttling back across the borders. The rise of the Taleban caused a fresh flood of refugees and a huge headache for UNHCR as it tried to cope with requests for accommodation or help to escape the area. "More than 80,000 people applied to us for emigration," said Ayub Khawariin, a spokesman at the Peshawar office of UNHCR. The smugglers are surprisingly open about their activities. While they do not give personal details they have no hesitation in listing things like prices and routes. Some quoted prices as high as 12,000 dollars for direct air travel from Pakistan to London including the forged documents needed to get onto the plane. The cost for reaching Europe via the tortuous land route through Turkey could be half that. "We carry people to London from Pakistan by going first to Iran and then flying to Bishkek and Moscow. From there we go Kiev, Hungary, Czech Republic, Germany and France, and from there to London. All these last places are reached by road," said an agent for the smugglers. "We have our own people in the Ukrainian foreign ministry and in the embassy," he boasted. "We claim to have invitations from various universities and use them to get visas to send people to the Ukraine legally and then we send them on to London illegally." Every conceivable route is used. As Western authorities shut down one, another appears. Around half the Afghans are believed to be going to European entry points like Bulgaria or Greece via Turkey, but agents also offer travel to France via Kenya or through Malta or Portugal. "Of all the routes the best way is a return ticket from Pakistan to Brazil," said the agent. "Since the flight from Brazil back to Pakistan has a stopover in London, the person doesn't go back to the plane and simply stays in the UK." Once a person is in London, he claims refugee status and cannot be deported until after a lengthy process that could end in him becoming a resident. Those with false papers destroy them on arrival. As soon as an Afghan arrives in his new country, he will start to raise money to bring the rest of his family over as well. This is why so many individuals will risk everything to send one son abroad - they are attempting to establish a new life for all. "My elder brother Ahmad Aziz is in London," Ahmad Riaz told IWPR. "He went there four years ago via Dubai by paying 500,000 rupees - about 10,000 dollars. Since then, he has called for my two younger brothers. Now I have paid money to an agent and will be leaving within the month." The smugglers and their agents who provide the first point of contact for the illegal emigrant are normally fellow Afghans. However, Turkish and Russian organised crime networks are active at a higher level. "All the agents who send people directly by plane are high-level Pakistani officials," said another smuggler, who went on to outline one scam designed to get people on planes to Britain. "Those agents who carry people by direct flights to London have contact with Pakistanis who live in England and have multiple entry visas in their passports," he explained. "These agents get such a document and replace the photo with the photo of the person they are sending. When they reach a London airport, an agent will retrieve the item and return it to the real owner." A shipload of refugees each paying thousands of dollars to reach the Mediterranean's north shore rivals drug trafficking for profit. Indeed, there is relatively little chance of being caught and, if you are, the punishments are not as severe as those meted out to drug dealers. The current return of Afghans to their homeland should reduce the opportunities for these human smugglers. But the desire to reach richer countries will not disappear. The criminals feeding off that demand will continue to prosper until potential refugees find that life at home is better than taking a chance on the smugglers. IWPR trainer Jack Redden assembled this report with contributions from journalism students Fazal Qader, Andiwal, Fazal Malik, Elaha Shaheen, Gul Bahar Gharwal, Noor Muhmand, Aminullah and Shams-ur-Rahman.