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

Refugees Still Reluctant to Return

More than a million displaced people still prefer life in Pakistan’s makeshift camps to the uncertain security situation back home,
By Abubaker Saddique

For 70-year-old Afghan refugee Ghulam Ghous, leaving his two-room mud house in a refugee camp south of Peshawar is still unthinkable.


“There is no security, there is no work and our house in Afghanistan lies in ruins,” he said, explaining why he is unwilling to return to his homeland after nearly15 years in neighbouring Pakistan.


Ghous left his village close to the Afghan capital of Kabul in the early Nineties, at the height of the Afghan civil war. Now, his six children weave carpets at the Khurrasan refugee camp and earn enough to feed their 15-member family.


They have access to potable water, electricity, a health clinic and, above all, a feeling of security. “If we go back to our village, we are bound to lose this,” Ghous told IWPR.


The mood in the 20-year-old Khurrasan camp, home to 9,000 people, is against returning to Afghanistan any time soon. “We will not leave Pakistan until we are forced out,” said Haji Ayub, a middle-aged Turkmen.


Although he has seen many relatives return to their village in the northern Afghan province of Jawzjan, he wants to stay for a few more years. “Over the past two years I made a few journeys to Jawzjan, but it will take a long time for things to normalise there,” he said.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, expects to assist some 400,000 refugees in Pakistan to return to Afghanistan by providing each with a travel grant, food and other items when they arrive in their homeland.


Overall, some three million Afghans have returned home from Pakistan, Iran, the Central Asian republics and other parts of the world. But of late, the number of those returning has slowed dramatically and a further 1.1 million have chosen to stay in 200 refugee camps across Pakistan.


“The decision to return remains completely with the refugees,” said Jack Redden, spokesman for UNHCR in Islamabad. “Rather than push factors from Pakistan, the pull factors of developments inside Afghanistan are likely to be the more important.”


Redden said that returning refugees must be satisfied with the state of security in their homeland - and for now this remains uneven at best. “Economic development - providing the jobs necessary to sustain returning refugees - is a main requirement for repatriation and reintegration of the Afghans now living outside the borders,” he added.


Over the past year, aid agencies have been the targets of sporadic attacks often blamed on Afghanistan’s former hard-line Islamist Taleban rulers. Last November, UNHCR suspended operations following the murder of staff member Bettina Goislard in the eastern Afghan city of Ghanzi.


“What [refugees] are doing is wait and see,” said Richard Ndaula, a repatriation officer with UNHCR in Peshawar. “Most of the people in these camps have spent well over two decades in Pakistan. Their families have grown up there and need more time to consider more issues before deciding anything.”


The Afghans living in the Pakistani urban centre, on the other hand, are more likely to move back as are generally educated, middle-class city dwellers who can more easily find jobs in their homeland. “We think that as the development and reconstruction of Afghanistan takes place you will see many refugees moving back,” Ndaula said.


Redden told IWPR that UNHCR plans to consolidate some of the "new" camps, established after the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001.


This process will begin with the closure of Shalman, a refugee village in the Khyber district along Pakistan's rugged, mountainous border with Afghanistan.


Despite a survey that showed that more than half of the 10,000 Afghans living there wanted to stay in Pakistan, they will now be relocated to Bajaur district, some 80 kilometres north of Peshawar.


For now, some of the refugees have decided to hedge their bets about returning. In the refugee camp of Khurrasan, Uzbek carpet weaver Haji Javed has decided to send half his family back to their village in Jawzjan before deciding whether the rest will also return.


“If things really improve in Afghanistan, we all will move there, otherwise I will be here to welcome my family back,” he said.


Abubaker Saddique is an independent journalist reporting on South Central Asia.