OVER five times the number of Afghan refugees returned home from Pakistan in August than in July, the United Nations’ refugee office said on Tuesday (September 6), seeking to escape stiffer measures on visits home and harassment in the host nation.
Pakistan is home to the world’s second-largest refugee population, including 2.5 million Afghans, with many refugees living there since the Soviet Union invaded their country in 1979.
But the UN High Commission for Refugees said 67,057 refugees were permanently repatriated from Pakistan in August 2016, up from 12,962 the month before and just 1,250 in June.
Until recently Afghan refugees did not need passports or visas to cross the porous border and visit the families they had left behind.
But following cross-border clashes in June between Afghan and Pakistani forces which killed four people at the main Torkham crossing on the disputed 2,600-km (1,616-mile) -long frontier, Islamabad has begun asking for such documents.
“The main reason for this is the closing of the Torkham border gate, because these people want to be able to go back and forth across the border, and that has completely stopped,” said Baryali Miankhel, president of the Supreme Council of Afghan Refugees in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Torkham is 180 km (112 miles) northwest of Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad and 170 km (106 miles) east of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
“These people have brothers and other relatives on the other side, that’s why the border restrictions are the main reason,” Miankhel added.
Under the UNHCR programme, refugees returning home get a special document permitting them to make the journey.
In June, Pakistan extended Afghan refugees’ right to stay until December 2016, but restrictions and harassment have grown, complain refugees and the UNHCR.
“The increase in the number of security operations against undocumented foreigners has also impacted refugees’ decision-making,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Duniya Aslam Khan.
Police are also increasingly demand bribes from refugees, Miankhel said, even those with Proof of Registration cards showing they have a legal right to stay in Pakistan.
“The police harass people, ask for money, and confiscate refugees’ cards unless they are paid bribes,” he added.
The Pakistani authorities deny harassing Afghan refugees.
Repatriations are on course this year to reach their highest level since 2008, with the UNHCR saying 103,013 refugees have returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan, 93 percent within the last two months.
However the surge coincided with a doubling of the UNHCR’s grant for returning refugees, to $400, Khan said.
“There is increasing anxiety among the Afghan refugees regarding what will happen when Proof of Registration cards expire in December 2016,” said Khan.