Afghans in Pakistan cite shelter and jobs as deciding factors in return
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Mar 31 (UNHCR) - Nearly 9,000 Afghans have gone home in the first month of UNHCR-assisted repatriation from Pakistan this year, citing jobs and shelter as key factors influencing their decision.
The UN refugee agency resumed its voluntary return operation to Afghanistan for the fifth year on March 1, after a break over winter. Since then, 5,218 Afghans have returned from North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), 1,840 from Balochistan, 1,422 from Sindh and 362 from Punjab and Islamabad.
Amir Bibi, 30, travelled for more than seven hours on a truck from Lahore in Punjab province to reach UNHCR's Voluntary Repatriation Centre at Tarnol, just outside Islamabad. Speaking through the net of her blue burkha, she said she was returning to Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan with her five children, brother and some cousins.
"My husband used to sell popcorn in Lahore. Three months ago, he went back to Jalalabad and became a security guard in a school," she said. "Everyone prefers her own country. We waited so long to go because we had no land or shelter back home. But now my husband has found a job, so we're off."
The sentiment was echoed by Akhter Mohammad, 45, in Karachi. "I have been to Afghanistan two times in the last 20 years to see if I can take my family to my homeland, where I would love to be buried," he told UNHCR staff before leaving for the border. "I didn't see any conditions in which I could keep my family safe, but a few days ago my parents in Paktika [eastern Afghanistan] asked me to return. They found me a job as a madrassah [religious school] teacher."
Often, the refugees are joining family members who returned earlier. "My father is already building our house back home," said Attaullah, a street hawker in Quetta heading to Karg Bagh in eastern Afghanistan's Ghazni province. "It's not easy to be a refugee here. Now we have the chance to go back. I just hope my children will have schools to go to when we return."
Nur Ahmad is a daily-wage worker whose family has lived in Quetta for 20 years. "We are comfortable to go back. After all, Pakistan is not our home," he said. "Why now? We're missing our home, and we know this is the last year of the Tripartite Agreement."
The current Tripartite Agreement between Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNHCR that governs voluntary repatriation was scheduled to expire this March but was extended to December 2006. Under the current arrangement, each returning Afghan family receives between US$4-37 in travel grant (depending on the distance home) and each individual receives $12 in reintegration assistance.
Endorsed by the Tripartite Commission, the Pakistani authorities have decided to close Girdi Jungle and Jungle Pir Alizai camps in Balochistan, as well as Katchagari and Jalozai camps in NWFP by April 30 for security and development reasons. Afghans living in these camps can opt to return home with UNHCR assistance or to relocate to existing camps selected by the Pakistan government - Mohammad Kheil in Balochistan and 10 camps in NWFP.
Some 600 refugees have repatriated from the four camps in the last month; the rest of the 250,000 affected Afghans are still undecided.
"Of course I'll miss the camp," said Hazrat Ali, a 20-year-old tailor at Katchagari. "I was born here, grew up here and got married here. I don't really want to leave, but I have to go back to my country eventually." Sewing 100 to 150 outfits a month, he plans to continue his business when he returns to his ancestral homeland in Jalalabad.
Some say they need more time. At Katchagari, Nangarhar native Saima Khan explained, "We will go back, but not yet. We don't have a home there. My brother's in the last year of university and we can't disrupt his studies. We need one more year."
At Jalozai camp, the reactions are equally mixed. While 20 families have already repatriated, others cite obstacles to their return. "Everyone loves his country but there is no peace and land is occupied by other people," said Abdul Manan, 37, from Jawzjan province in northern Afghanistan. "When I first came to Pakistan 30 years ago, I had one family. But now it has multiplied to 25 families."
Although business at his shoe shop in Jalozai is only "so-so, I make 800-1,000 rupees [US$13-16] in sales every day, but the profit margin is very small," Abdul Manan has no immediate plans to leave: "We're here because there are no opportunities in Afghanistan. If there were, we would have gone long ago."
More than 2.7 million Afghans have returned home since UNHCR started assisting returns to Afghanistan in 2002. About 2.6 million Afghans are still living in Pakistan.
By Vivian Tan in Peshawar, Quetta and Tarnol, Pakistan