Peshawar, July 7 (IANS) Afghan refugees, who fled to Pakistan three decades ago carrying few belongings, are now facing an ultimatum from the Islamabad government to return to Afghanistan, a country that is still in the throes of conflict.
The war between Afghanistan and the then Soviet Union (1979-1989) forced three million Afghans to cross the border to seek asylum in neighbouring Pakistan, which last week extended their residency status for six more months, with a warning that after that they must leave, EFE news reported.
Islamabad, home to the second largest refugee population in the world and one of the oldest, blames Afghans for the violence afflicting the country and for flooding the labour market.
“My children and grandchildren were born here. They are more Pakistani than Afghani,” says Mohamed Zamir, one of the residents of the Kababian refugee camp in Peshawar, set up in 1981, housing 11,300 Afghan refugees.
Fifty-five years old Zamir, who manages a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) school, crossed the Pakistani border on foot along with his parents and nine siblings in 1981 and may have to retrace his steps and return to Afghanistan shortly, with his wife, four children and eight grandchildren.
The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has not yet made any statement on the future of the refugees.
Sher Ali, a second generation refugee who was born in Pakistan 33 years ago, says he doesn’t want to return to Afghanistan, a country in which he has never lived.
“I was born here, I work here. This is the place I know, in Afghanistan, I am like a foreigner,” says Ali, whose family came to Pakistan in 1979.
Like Ali, most of the 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees and another million and a half staying in Pakistan illegally, were born in Pakistan, UNHCR spokesperson in the country, Duniya Aslam, told EFE.
But Pakistan does not grant nationality to refugee children born in the country.
Of the total number of registered Afghan refugees, 40 per cent still live in some of the 43 UNHCR camps in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
While Pakistan has been asking the Afghan refugees to leave for years, the calls for their repatriation have grown in recent times following the 2014 Taliban attack against a school in Peshawar in which 125 children were killed.
A week ago, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said his government, UNHCR and the Afghan government will begin talks in July on the transfer of the camps in Pakistan to the other side of the border.