JALALABAD, 27 February (IRIN) - The Afghan government and international aid workers are bracing for an imminent deportation from Pakistan of thousands of Afghan migrants and unregistered refugees - a move they warn could be destabilizing for the fragile country.
Pakistani authorities issued warnings to thousands of families in underdeveloped and largely ungoverned areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan that their homes would be bulldozed and they would be expelled on 5 January 2012, said Ghulam Haidar Faqirzai, director of the Afghan Department of Refugees and Repatriation (DoRR) for Nangarhar Province, which borders Pakistan.
“It didn’t happen. But we are expecting it any day,” he told IRIN.
He said 6,000 families had been issued eviction notices, though aid agencies believe the number to be closer to 2,500. The main target is Bacha Mena, a village in the Landi Kotal area of Pakistan’s Khyber Agency, just along the border with Afghanistan.
“The Pakistani authorities have given those families notice that they have to move out,” confirmed Ilija Torodovic, head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Jalalabad, about 80km from the Pakistani border. “That possibility is very high.”
Some observers say Pakistan is trying to clear all Afghans (whether registered or not) from the border’s dangerous tribal areas - home to Pakistani insurgents who are fighting the Pakistani military - because it suspects they are spying for Afghanistan or getting involved in “terrorism”. At times, military operations are used as a pretext for asking Afghans to leave the area, aid workers said.
The situation along the border is especially tense due to the recent killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by NATO and Pakistan’s subsequent closure of the border to NATO supplies.
“They have already started this [clearance] process,” said Majroom, Jalalabad field coordinator with NGO International Rescue Committee (IRC).
Radio announcements in Landi Kotal, for example, have warned that all Afghans must go, he said.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abdul Basit said he was not aware of any evictions. But another Pakistani official told IRIN the deportations were “exceptional cases” - limited to Afghans involved in criminal behaviour, including highway robberies.
“We are not very strict on [the refugees] because we know the situation in Afghanistan is not very encouraging. So we will not force them [to return].” But, he said, “naturally, every state looks after their interests first... If some people or refugees are making problems in some areas... naturally you have the right to make them go back.”
Faqirzai warned their eviction would create a “humanitarian tragedy” because of the government’s inability to absorb returnees. “We want to alleviate the burden [on Pakistan],” Faqirzai said, “but it should be done gradually, not all at once.”
He said residents who had Proof of Residence (PoR) cards, giving registered refugees the right to live in Pakistan until at least the end of 2012, were among those who were issued eviction notices, but UNHCR said it had no such evidence.
Aid agencies have created a contingency plan with an expectation that 10-15,000 unregistered refugees and/or migrants may be forced to return to Afghanistan in the coming months. Some expect that any registered refugees in Landi Kotal will be moved to other Pakistani locations outside of the tribal areas.
NGOs and UN agencies have mobilized to respond to expected needs in the case of a mass deportation: shelter, food, household items, winter clothes, potable water, hygiene and sanitation, education, health services and land for resettlement.
DoRR and UNHCR are closely monitoring the situation along the border and the Afghan government is increasing staffing levels at the DoRR office in Nangarhar from 28 to 38, in anticipation of an influx of returnees.
There are 1.7 million registered refugees in Pakistan and another 1-1.3 million (some estimates are as high as 2 million) unregistered Afghans living there.
Pakistan has been threatening to kick out unregistered Afghans for years, but an ongoing military operation in the region; deteriorating relationships between Pakistan and both Afghanistan and the USA; and an internal struggle between the civilian government and the military in Pakistan have observers worried that a mass eviction could now become reality. And besides, there is a precedent.
It has happened before
Last year, at the height of winter, 1,700 families - nearly 11,400 people - watched as Pakistani authorities bulldozed homes in Landi Kotal, where some of them had lived for more than three decades.
“People didn’t even have time to gather their belongings,” said Rahim Gul Amin, emergency focal point in the country’s eastern region for the NGO Norwegian Refugee Council.
They were then forced across the border. Those who managed to rescue some of their belongings had them taken from them on their way home, or were forced to pay bribes, Faqirzai and aid workers said.
According to UNHCR, evicted Afghans said some people were killed by the bulldozers, but the Pakistani government denies this.
A repeat could be an indication of a shift in Pakistani policy - towards a more consistent attempt at sending unregistered Afghans back home.
Inter Press Service reported on 22 February that the home department of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, along the border, recently proposed deporting the estimated 400,000 illegal residents residing in the province, if the central government gave a green light.
If evictions become the norm, aid workers and government officials say they are in for “disaster”.
“We experienced these Landi Kotal evictees,” the repatriation department’s Faqirzai said. “Believe me, at that time… we had no idea how to manage that. It was only 1,700 families... Imagine if we have people in millions. We don’t have the absorption capacity; we don’t have employment.”
The government repatriation department, which relies on UNHCR for vehicles, fuel, salary top-ups, and even phone cards, can barely pay its staff to monitor the returnees, let alone help them. It has no budget for development programmes and without UNHCR’s support - to the tune of $80,000 per month - “we would halt our activities,” Faqirzai said.
Unregistered evictees would not qualify for UNHCR’s cash assistance for registered returnees. They could thus end up joining the 60 percent of returnees who, according to UNHCR, fail to re-integrate.
Many returnees end up living in informal settlements or begging on the street. Aid workers say young, unemployed, badly integrated youth are easy targets for Taliban recruiters. For Candace Rondeaux, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan, the implications of a mass return in a short period of time would be “enormous”.
“As the pressure increases, as the competition increases between Afghan elites, political elites, all over the country, with the withdrawal of NATO forces, an influx of under-educated - if educated - poor, malnourished Pashtuns is not going to help to stabilize Afghanistan anytime soon.”
Yet both the government and UNHCR expect an increase this year in the number of returns - “both forced and voluntary” - after years of declining numbers of returnees.
“I’m not confident or optimistic about the improvement of relations between the Pakistani government and the Afghan refugees,” Faqirzai said. “I think it is going to deteriorate.”