Returning Afghans might be politically rewarding, it is also life threatening

For all us, who find that political debates hardly surpass street brawls these days, and that online, rational arguments are more often than not overshadowed by prejudice and outright racism, it would be good to follow the discussions between Afghans and Pakistanis following the next terrorist attack in Kabul or Karachi.

CC Gie Goris (CC BY-NC 2.0)


The fumes of the heavy attack in Kabul were still hanging over the city in January, when citizens, officers and political leaders alike said they could prove that the terrorists operated from Pakistani territory. And when, a week later, eleven Pakistani soldiers were killed in an attack in the Swat Valley, Twitter exploded with hate messages against Afghan refugees, who are living in Pakistan’s Northwest, some of them already since the first influx in the early 1980’s.

Keep in mind that in #Pakistani dictionary, #Afghanistan is now a hostile #Indian #vassalstate. With 2.7 million enemy combatants a.k.a #AfghanRefugees in #Pak’, a certain HighPriestess tweeted. And she certainly was not the only one. Jahanzeb Khan put it in typical fashion, with erratic use of capitals and grammar: ‘Untill unless Afghan refugees r not thrown out of our land Extremists& enemies will continuously use them against our nation as afghanis are our enemies from heart and can easily purchased on small offer FOR GOD SAKE SAVE NATION BAN AFGHANIS IN PAK’.

Pakistan’s political leaders suggest and stimulate making the link between the 2.5 million Afghans in Pakistan and terrorism

The Twitter messages make it look lunatic, but Pakistans government and political leaders themselves are the ones who suggest and stimulate making the link between the 2.5 million Afghans, living in the Pakistani border regions of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkwa, or in Karachi and other cities, and terrorism within Pakistan.

In a very recent interview with MO*, Pakistans Minister of Defence Khurram Dastgir Khan said: ‘There remain three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, already fourthy years. They are the last resort for the terrorists. That is why we ask support from Afghanistan or the international community to help us repatriate them. But no help is forthcoming.’

Both the Minister and the Pakistani Twittertrolls refer to the plans of their government to return as many Afghans as possible, as soon as possible, to their “homeland” -even if many of the adult Afghans in Pakistan have been born and raised in the country that provided shelter to their parents in the 1980’s or 1990’s. The threat of expulsion is clearly part of a cynical power game with Afghanistan, India, the United States and other countries involved. The Afghan refugees have, once more, become vulnerable pawns in someone else’s chess game.

A million and a half Afghans received prolongation of their residence status in Pakistan on 31 January, the day that was anounced as the deadline of that status to expire. These Afghans are holders of a Proof of Registration (PoR) card. The other million or more Afghans has been living in Pakistan without registration, making them even more vulnerable for expulsion or exploitation. Most of them have applied for a Afghan Citizen card, but that has not helped to make their situation any more stable. The Pakistani government announced it would not renew the PoR cards after January 31. The day of the deadline, the government gave a temporary relief with a prolongation of two months -meaning that the new deadline of March 31 already dangles as a sword of Damocles above at least 1.5 million Afghan heads.

The real gamechanger is US president Trump who explicitly blamed Pakistan for the unending war in Afghanistan

The accusations of Pakistani complicity in the Afghan insurrection and Taliban attacks were a staple during the latter years of Hamid Karzai’s presidency, and they returned under his successor Ashraf Ghani and his de facto prime minister Abdullah Abdullah, who repeate the “they-come-from-Pakistan” mantra after every terrorist attack. Actually, nobody with even a superficial knowledge of the history of Afghan-Pakistan relations is surprised by those mutual recriminations.

The real gamechanger here is US president Trump who explicitly blamed Pakistan in his August speech on his South Asia strategy for the unending war in Afghanistan, and then as @realdonaldtrump delivered a series of stinging tweets, in which he accuses Islamabad of delivering nothing but lies and deceit in return for 33 billions of US treasury. ‘They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!’

Those accusations were repeated by other high ranking US politicians and generals, and that hurted the Pakistani establishment deeply. Observers see the combination of Afghan and US accusations with a stronger than ever partnership between the US and India as the real reason why Islamabad decided to use Afghan refugees on the geostrategic chessboard of Central-Asia.

CC Gie Goris (CC BY-NC 2.0)


It is not the first time this happens. In June 2016, 600.000 Afghans were forced by Pakistan to return to their country-at-war. Most of them got not more than 48 hours notice to pack up and leave. Since 2001 -the Anglo-American attack on the Taliban regime and its subsequent overthrow- more than 3.6 million Afghan refugees returned from Pakistan. The United Nations (Unhcr) run a special program to support returnees, but that is on hold during the winter months -which caused additional worries for those who feared expulsion after January 31th.

In January 2018, the IOM saw 1500 Afghans returning from Pakistan, while just short of 40.000 returned from Iran

Iran is supposed ton host another 3 million Afghan refugees, of whom less than one million would be registered as refugees. Opportunities for education or permanent residence for them are even slimmer than for their brothers and sisters in Pakistan. The most recent numbers given by the Internation Organisation for Migration (IOM) are revealing: in January 2018, the organisation saw 1500 Afghans returning from Pakistan, while just short of 40.000 returned from Iran. Most of them were expulsions rather than voluntary returns, and even those who indicate they did come voluntarily, decided to do so under the pressure of circumstances and a lack of perspective.

Returning refugees from Europe, Pakistan or Iran largely settle in Afghanistan’s cities, given the general and growing insecurity in rural Afghanistan. No better way to illustrate that growing insecurity, than by quoting the numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s). According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the number of IDP’s in Afghanistan tripled between 2012 and 2016: from 492.000 to 1.5 million, of whom 653.000 people were uprooted by the surging war violence in 2016 alone. 2017 saw 1200 people a day leaving their homes and belongings behind. 75 procent of these IDP’s survive without aid or support from the government, causing increasing hunger, debts and child labour.

A recent report of the NRC finds that seven out of ten returning refugees has to flee again for violence or insecurity. Those doing so are either heading back out of Afghanistan, looking for protection elsewhere, or become part of that burgeoning group of vulnerable displaced people in their own country.

Between 2012 and 2016 the IDP’s grew from 492.000 to 1.5 million people, of whom 653.000 people were uprooted in 2016 alone

These data should convince European countries to put an end to their policies of forced return to Afghanistan, opines NRC director Jan Egeland. Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria and France are currently using the deal the EU forced Afghanistan to accept in 2016, to fly rejected asylum seekers or other Afghans back to Kabul.

The forced returns of Afghans by nine European countries, Pakistan and Iran take place against a backdrop of ever increasing numbers of Afghan citizens and soldiers falling victim to the violent conflict in their country. 2016 saw 11.500 Afghan citizens and 20.000 Afghan soldiers killed or wounded, and the expectation is that the final tally for 2017 will be even higher. The past weeks showed clearly that even cities considered safe before, like Kabul, have become dangerous spaces for ordinary Afghans. Amnesty International has recently even named Kabul the most dangerous place in the country, based on the fact that one in every five victims was made in Kabul province. That number, though, corresponds with contemporary demographics of Afghanistan, where, according to the latest census data, one in every five Afghans lives in Kabul province.

Given this context of increased and lethal insecurity in Afghanistan and the threat of even further destabilisation by mass deportation from Pakistan, Afghans in Europe contest the dwindling protection rates they are confronted with. In Belgium, that protection rate was 59 procent in 2017, a slight increase as compared to 2016, but a sharp drop as compared to 2014, when the rate was 74.5 procent. A collective of Afghan refugees in Belgium ascribes the higher rate of 2014 to the sustained and highly mediatized actions of Afghans in the preceding year. That is why they are planning a new wave of actions soon. The same is expected in other European countries.

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