More than three decades after fleeing Afghanistan, refugee Noor Said struggles to feed his family of eight on less than the $3 per day he earns weaving fabric in northwest Pakistan. Now he’s got an even bigger worry: Being forced back amid the worst border tensions in years.
“I can’t take my small children to a place where their lives are tougher and in danger, even if that is our motherland,” he said this week in his three-room home in Utmanzai, a dusty refugee camp with more than 300 mud-brick houses near the border with Afghanistan. He initially fled when the Soviet Union invaded in 1980.
Said is among at least 1.5 million documented refugees who are caught in the middle of a wider spat involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. that escalated after an American drone killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour last month. Pakistan is threatening to deport all of the refugees by the end of June, a move that risks leading to a humanitarian disaster in what would be one of the biggest forced repatriations in decades.
Many analysts see the threat as merely rhetorical, given that Pakistan has failed to enforce previous deportation deadlines. Yet after Mansour’s death on Pakistani soil — as well as a U.S. move to withhold subsidies for F-16 fighter jets — the warning sends a message to American policymakers who see Islamabad’s leaders as a hindrance to peace: Pakistan is essential to any deal.
“Both sides are playing their cards,” said Mansur Khan Mahsud, director of the FATA Research Centre in Islamabad. The mentality in Pakistan, he said, is that “if you are building pressure, I’ll do the same to counter you.”
At face value, Pakistan’s moves reflect concerns over Islamic militants crossing the porous border that has been disputed ever since Sir Mortimer Durand helped draw it up in 1893, when Britain ruled much of South Asia. Many Afghan refugees have been in Pakistan for decades, and international funding for them has fallen as crises erupted in Syria and Iraq.
Besides the 1.5 million documented refugees, Pakistan says another 1.5 million Afghans are in the country with no legal status. Only about a third of all documented Afghans in Pakistan live in 54 United Nations-monitored refugee villages.
“The return of Afghan refugees is part of the border management program,” Asim Bajwa, Pakistan’s military spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday in Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad. “They have been here for 36 years and most of them are living outside camps in an unregulated manner. We want them to go back.”
About a week after Mansour’s death, Pakistan tightened security at Torkham, the busiest border crossing with Afghanistan. Tensions have escalated since, with sporadic fighting breaking out as Afghan soldiers look to prevent Pakistan from erecting a gate along the so-called “Durand Line.” One soldier has been killed and another 19 injured.
Stuck in the middle are refugees like Said who are scared to move back to Afghanistan. The fight against the Taliban and other insurgent groups killed or wounded a record 11,000 civilians last year. At the same time, Afghanistan’s economy is strained. Per capita incomes have fallen since 2012, and the International Monetary Fund expects that trend to continue this year.
In Utmanzai, children filled plastic buckets and bottles with water from hand-pumps as elders rested from the scorching heat under shades made of straw. While the village lacks many amenities, the refugees can use Pakistan hospitals, ensure their kids get an education and are more or less safe.
Not so in Afghanistan. “There are no schools, no health facilities and no peace,” Morad, a 53-year-old former soldier who goes by one name, said of his homeland. He has lived as a refugee in Pakistan since the 1980s.
Any attempt to repatriate the Afghan refugees will prompt them to flee beyond South Asia, Indrika Ratwatte, Pakistan representative at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in an interview in Islamabad. Afghans already comprise the third-highest migrant population in Europe.
Still, it’s becoming harder for the UN to raise cash to help Pakistan support them. The refugee agency in the nation cut its budget by 15 percent last year as donors could only fund 40 percent of the $230 million it needed, Ratwatte said.
“Funding for Syria and Iraq shouldn’t be at the cost of the protracted refugee situations like with the Afghans,” he said.
Afghanistan’s government is already struggling to improve conditions for at least 1.2 million Afghans internally displaced by conflict, more than double the number three years ago, according to Amnesty International.
“Afghanistan isn’t now prepared to embrace a large influx of Afghan immigrants from neighboring nations given the security problems and lack of resources,” Hafiz Ahmad Miakhel, an adviser to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, said in an interview. The nation is working with Pakistan and Iran to resolve migrant-related issues, he said.
Ultimately any refugee crisis would be a problem for the U.S., which currently pays for about 75 percent of Afghanistan’s military budget. A humanitarian disaster would distract vital resources from fighting the Taliban, whose resurgence has forced President Barack Obama to delay a planned troop withdrawal.
The United States has repeatedly called on Pakistan to do more to root out terrorism, while Islamabad’s leaders say contacts with the Taliban are essential to securing a political solution to the 15-year war. Peace talks so far have gone nowhere.
The current tensions may yet be defused. Pakistan’s government has said it will consider a request to allow Afghan refugees to remain in the country until December 2017. On Thursday, Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria told reporters that the refugees should be returned “in a dignified manner.”
“I would not ask them to send them back,” Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former president, said of the refugees at a conference in London on Friday. Instead, Pakistan should give them support and jobs so they can “send money back to Afghanistan,” he said, adding that 99.9 percent of people crossing the borders aren’t extremists.
Nevertheless, hostilities between the two neighbors are lingering. Afghans living in Pakistan face regular discrimination and harassment, said Sami-ul-Haq, a 38-year-old Afghan who runs a small grocery shop in Utmanzai.
“All Afghans aren’t militants or terrorists,” he said. “I’m confident they could find a suspect in a huge crowd if they want, so there’s no point in harassing us.”
Eltaf Najafizada and Chris Kay contributed.