PESHAWAR: The prospect of leaving his Pakistani wife and their six children behind dominates Bilal’s thoughts.
He barely has a month to pack up his belongings and head back ‘home’ as the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) government has decided to expel Afghan refugees after the Army Public School attack. Understandably, he paints a bleak picture of what the future may have in store for him.
If Bilal takes his family of seven with him across the Durand Line, “What will my children do (there) without food, health facilities and schooling?” he asks. “What will I do without a job there?”
Bilal is married to a local woman from Teleband village and their six children go to school in Pakistan.
“I am not alone. Many Afghan refugees have married local women in surrounding villages,” he says. However, the Pakistani citizenship act has no provisos to grant citizenship to foreign men who marry Pakistani women.
Returning to the Talibans
Turning his attention to the motherland, he says neighbourhoods in Afghanistan are controlled by the Taliban and living there is not easy.
A native of Logar province which almost touches Parachinar in Kurram Agency, Bilal drives a taxi for a living and resides in Shamshato refugee camp. He says the atmosphere is tense as it is impossible to go back home in a month’s time.
“When our forefathers lived in Afghanistan, the concept of money was not known to most people. The barter system was in place back then,” he says. “Life was tough in the hills and hinterlands, but people were used to it,” he adds. However, that is no longer the case. Earning Rs1,200 a day, Bilal has become accustomed to a certain lifestyle. “I can’t eat the food available in the Afghan hills. There is nothing more than the milk of goats, some seasonal fruits and corn flour—if you’re lucky.”
Emotional decision making
Meanwhile, the president of the K-P United Supreme Council of Afghan Refugees (USCAR), Haji Rehmatullah Mohmand, has also voiced strong concern over the provincial government’s announcement.
He tells The Express Tribune the decision has been made by an inexperienced regime that has come into power for the first time.
“They have taken an emotional stance. More focus is needed on the ground realities.” He says the Afghan government is not serious about the return of refugees. “Their fate now hangs in the balance.”
Pakistani authorities consider the refugees a burden, he says. “We cannot return on our own due to the volatile law and order situation.”
“A month ago, my nephew died in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. I visited the war-torn country to attend the funeral. There was fighting all night long,” he recalls.
The Afghan army and Nato forces surrounded the village and took all the male residents into custody. “They were forced to stand in the cold night despite the fact there wasn’t a single militant among them.”
The government in that country has formed the Mahali militia. However, locals prefer calling it ‘Arbaki’, a more derogatory term. He claims its members openly demand and collect extortion from every man with a beard.
The USCAR has 42 refugee camps as its members in K-P. In the past, there were also camps in Tirah, Orakzai, Khyber Agency and other parts of Fata, but most of their residents have been expelled in the wake of military operations. Mohmand Agency is probably the last tribal agency where a camp still exists.
According to UNHCR records, there are 63 refugee camps in K-P which authorities prefer to call villages. Over the past 30 years, these settlements have become more like villages than camps in the true sense of the word.
1.6 million rooted lives
There are an estimated 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees in the country while another million are living in Pakistan illegally.
The total number of refugees living in the 63 camps of K-P and one Yakaghond camp in Mohmand Agency is around 470,000. That is a large portion of the 536,000 camp-dwelling refugees across the country.
An Afghan commissionerate official tells The Express Tribune that the federal government has the authority to decide whether or not to expel Afghan refugees. “The cabinet has allowed the registered refugees to stay in the country till December 31, 2015 and the provincial government is not in a position to challenge it,” he says, requesting anonymity.
He adds that as per an MoU, the UNHCR, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan are stakeholders in the refugees case.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2014.