The Afghan Story - Peshawar, Pakistan

Sometimes it’s safe to repatriate after a few years, sometimes after a few generations. What does it mean to return to a home you’ve never been to? This was the question that we were confronted with in Peshawar, Pakistan as we followed one Afghan families’ journey across the border.

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What's the situation?

After the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, as much as 4 million Afghan refugees sheltered in Pakistan at one point. During a progression of invasions and instability, from the US to the civil war to the Taliban, the numbers have fluctuated over the decades. As of 2018, Pakistan still has 1.4 million registered and over half a million unregistered refugees, one of the biggest refugee populations in the world over one of the most protracted timelines.

Last year saw the severe reduction of resettlement to third countries, hardened borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan and unsatisfactory solutions to expiring registered Afghan ID cards, leaving Afghans living in Pakistan increasingly vulnerable. Many are faced with the choice of living under inhumane conditions as second class citizens versus living in a country prone to danger and instability.

 Peshawar, the gateway to Pakistan's tribal territories, houses some of the countries' largest Afghan populations. 

Peshawar, the gateway to Pakistan's tribal territories, houses some of the countries' largest Afghan populations. 

Why is this happening?

2002 saw the largest surge in Afghans crossing into Pakistan in recent times, due to the US invasion of Afghanistan. The mentality in Pakistan had changed little since the times of Zia Ul-Haq’s (President 1978-1988) declaration that the Afghans are Pakistan’s brothers, to be treated with hospitality. Considering the overlapping Pashtun culture between the two countries, there was a relatively easy mix of cultures.

But everything changed in 2014 after a Taliban attack on a Peshawar school left 149 dead. 

The narrative shifted after this massacre, with Afghans being painted as terrorists (all the attackers were foreign affiliates, including 2 Afghans). The border, which had remained fairly porous through the decades, hardened. This made movement between the two countries more restricted and separated families.

Most Afghan refugees held PoR (Proof of Registration) ID cards that validated their residency in Pakistan, but they were set to expire in 2015. Thus, 2016 saw the largest numbers of Afghan repatriations (300k-400k) with an increased cash incentive of $400 provided by UNHCR encashment centres in Afghanistan and land grants provided by the Afghan government, which sought to incentivise Afghan returns to aid in rebuilding the country.

 UNHCR's Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Azakhel, Nowshera, about 40 kilometres east of Peshawar, has the capacity to facilitate the return of up to 10,000 refugees every day through the Torkham border crossing.

UNHCR's Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Azakhel, Nowshera, about 40 kilometres east of Peshawar, has the capacity to facilitate the return of up to 10,000 refugees every day through the Torkham border crossing.

 Biometrics are a key part of the process to de-register Afghan refugees from the NADRA system.

Biometrics are a key part of the process to de-register Afghan refugees from the NADRA system.

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But Afghanistan is a country falling slowly to insurgency with the return of the Taliban and increased presence of ISIL-Khorasan. Bombings and indiscriminate attacks have been a hallmark of 2018. Jalalabad saw so much violence even during our time in Pakistan that security has been ceded from the police to the army and the encashment centre located there has had operations suspended. 

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the army is increasingly clamping down on Afghan nationals through arrests and detentions, targeting those who attend rallies or large gatherings and who increasingly don’t hold valid PoR cards. Non-Governmental organisations like SHARP-Pakistan train local police and members of Pakistan’s legal system regarding international law, but Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Human Rights, making their refugee policies irregular and ad-hoc. As of the past 2 years, resettlements to third countries have dwindled to functionally zero, leaving few options for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

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What’s being done?

Policy changes are under way in Pakistan. A key cabinet meeting on Feb 7, 2017 laid out a framework for dealing with the issue. It was undertaken to register any and all unregistered Afghan nationals living in Pakistan (refugees not included), the start of a visa regime between the countries and dialogue regarding refugee law, initiated by SHARP and taken over by UNHCR. It also extended the validity of the PoR cards to Dec 31, 2017.

This means that border crossings without valid visas are no longer tolerated. The ad-hoc style 3-5 month extensions on PoR cards is a process that has continued into late 2018, leaving those who are applying for jobs or university spots in precarious situations. Saffron, the government entity in charge of these extensions, is lacking in capacity to actually create new cards.

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A target of 700k repatriations was set for 2017 but only 59,020 (figured provided by SHARP) actually took place. Between January 2018 and July 2018, 93,016 repatriations (2424 families)  took place. The repatriation cash grant provided by UNHCR has reduced from $400 to $200 and Afghanistan continues falling to insurgency.

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Yet still, families make the decision to return on a daily basis. The family that Somewhere Films ended up following was one such case. Their repatriation story starts with the head of the family, Abdul Ghafoor, deciding it was time to go home, much to the dismay of everyone else. His wife, a local Pakistani woman and their children, all born and raised in Pakistan, had little say in the matter. 

Their home was in Chitral, a famously hospitable region of Pakistan closely bordering Afghanistan, which is where Abdul fled to after Soviet forces demolished his village in Nuristan, Afghanistan. They are shopkeepers and all children have been able to attend school, the oldest son for 12 grades. They are headed to Kabul, the most secure city in an insecure country, starting life anew.

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