Almost 40 years ago, Allah Noor took his family to a safe haven in Pakistan, following the Soviet invasion of . Last week he returned, to a country at war.
At the crack of dawn, when his family crossed the border to Afghanistan on a truck heaving with all their possessions, they were greeted by the roar of fighter planes returning from nightly bombing missions. A white surveillance blimp hovered above.
Afghan exodus from Pakistan could be 'catastrophic' without urgent aid
Noor’s family is among more than 100,000 Afghans who have been . Pakistan’s government has ordered all Afghan migrants and refugees to leave – about 3 million people. Roughly 250,000 of their number have left so far this year, , in the biggest eviction of Afghans in decades.
Whole neighbourhoods are being uprooted, often second- or third-generation refugees with little connection to Afghanistan. Many arrive in their place of origin to find .
Pakistani authorities have raided homes, and returning families have spoken of police harassment and arbitrary arrests.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Ocha, expects 600,000 Afghans to have returned by the end of the year. With another 250,000 people newly displaced by the Afghan conflict, of a looming humanitarian crisis. Yet the response from international aid agencies has been slow and insufficient.
Noor’s family of 18 left after months of intimidation by police, who came to their house near Peshawar almost every day to order them to leave.
The family’s truck crossed the Afghan-Pakistan border post at Torkham.
Slipping out of the bottleneck of decorated jingle trucks, they passed Jalalabad airport, which since 2001 has been occupied by the US military with its jets and .
Noor, 62, is the family’s only adult male. Two sons live in Saudi Arabia and the UK.
In the back of the truck sat burqa-clad women, squeezed among a thicket of possessions: beds, a rusty floor fan, a child’s bicycle and piles of firewood for winter. In the middle of it all, a gaggle of geese bounced with the harsh movements of the truck.
It was a punishing, day-long ride. “Where are you going?” children shouted from the roadside, as the truck circumvented Jalalabad and steered toward Noor’s native Laghman province.
Noor said that his village had been totally destroyed. “There might be peace for a month now and then,” he reflected, “but there is still fighting in our village.” He had to find a new plot of land, a school for the children, and then wait for remittances from his sons abroad.
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Still, the Noor family is relatively lucky. Upon arrival, they received $3,600 (£2,825) from the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, for the nine family members who were registered as refugees in Pakistan. The remaining nine were ineligible for the because they were undocumented, as are about two-thirds of returnees.
Due to inadequate funding, the International Organisation for Migration is only able to provide the most vulnerable of undocumented returnees, about 30%, with tents, kitchen utensils, food and other basic needs.
In September, Ocha for $152m to assist the returning families.
The influx of returnees has caught international agencies by surprise, and the response has been hampered by inertia, according to Will Carter, head of programme with the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the main organisations assisting in Nangarhar.
In addition, he said, the response is skewed. The UNHCR receives the vast majority of funds but only assists people registered as refugees in Pakistan.
“The difference in survival chances is jarring, and frankly it’s bizarre that an agency mandated to protect refugees appears to care for just half of them. It’s callous,” said Carter.
The UNHCR argues it is only mandated to help registered refugees. The agency is also responsible for distributing personal registration cards to refugees in Pakistan, which they have not done since 2007.
Alexander Mundt, assistant representative for the UNHCR in Afghanistan, said children of refugees could easily have registered with the agency over the past nine years. He added that “people with a credible fear of persecution” were also able to apply for individual refugee status.
“I think we did what we could, and were more than generous,” he said. “It is not a bottomless pit of money.”
Mundt admitted, however: “There is no way we can keep up with [the number of refugees], and we don’t encourage people in the millions to approach the UNHCR.”
He conceded that the recent UN cash grants to returnees had contributed to some inequality. “But I wouldn’t assume that every person returning in is dire need,” he added.
Among the undocumented returnees is Taj Bibi, a mother of six who was widowed four months ago. Her oldest son, Amanullah, is 14. Bibi had lived in Pakistan since the jihad in the 1980s but was forced out barely two months after her husband died in a motorcycle accident.
“Our life was very good there – my husband could make a salary,” she said from behind a curtain in her tent in Nangarhar’s Behsud district, where she relies on aid and help from neighbours. “We will live the rest of our life here,” she said.
Aid workers say about 75% of returnees crossing the Torkham border settle in Nangarhar province. Here, unemployment is endemic, even for those who never left, but the area is also beset by insurgent groups, .
“This is creating so much desperation among families who have lost everything. It makes them easy recruitment targets for Taliban and even Daesh [Isis],” said Timor Sharan, senior Afghanistan analyst with the International Crisis Group.
For decades, Pakistan has been a safe haven for Afghans, with whom they share a cultural kinship. Yet the large Afghan refugee communities are difficult to monitor, and Pakistani authorities they harboured militants and criminals.
The Pakistan government has periodically threatened to send Afghans back, but it is unclear what triggered the recent crackdown.
that Pakistan is using Afghans as pawns in a dispute with the US. Noor, meanwhile, thought the harassment had more to do with the Afghan government’s recent diplomatic outreach to Pakistan’s rival.
“Ever since Afghanistan began improving relations with India, they called us ‘sons of India’”, he said.