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Afghans fear life on both sides of Durand Line

‘I’d rather die in Pakistan than go back to Afghanistan.’

A person rides their bike in front of a line of trucks loaded with belongings t the Chaman Border Crossing along the Pakistan-Afghanistan Border in Balochistan Province, in Chaman, Pakistan. Naseer Ahmed/Reuters
A man rides a bicycle past trucks loaded with Afghans' belongings as they head back to Afghanistan from the border crossing in Chaman, Pakistan in November 2023.

Every day, hundreds of families continue to arrive in the Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Nangarhar from Pakistan – many of whom have never before lived in their homeland. Meanwhile, with efforts to push them out barrelling ahead, many Afghans still in Pakistan are filled with dread at the thought of having to restart their lives in Afghanistan.

The New Humanitarian recently reported from both sides of the Durand Line – the colonial era border drawn in the 1890s to demarcate then-British India from Afghanistan – speaking to Afghans being pressured or forced to return to their home country and to those trying to stay in Pakistan amid a growing climate of fear.

“We grew up here and spent our entire life here,” Usman, a 30-year-old father of six who was born in Pakistan to Afghan parents, told The New Humanitarian in the Pakistani city of Chaman, bordering Afghanistan.

This map shows two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are locator dots in their two capitals: Islamabad in Pakistan and Kabul in Afghanistan. The Durand line (border between the two) is highlighted in burgundy red. On Afghanistan's side locator dots are also placed in Kandahar and Spin Boldak. On Pakistan's side we see Chaman.

Like most of the Afghans The New Humanitarian spoke to, Usman gave only his first name due to safety concerns. “Although the situation is dire for us here as well, at least we know the country and consider it our own,” he said. “In Afghanistan, we know no one.”

Life has become unstable and full of fear for Afghans like Usman since Pakistan first announced it would deport “all illegal foreigners” last October. Expulsions have since become commonplace, along with people returning on their own to avoid being rounded up by Pakistani authorities and forced out.

An estimated 3.5 million Afghans live in Pakistan. The exact total is unknown because many are undocumented, and the number has fluctuated in the decades since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s first forced people to leave en masse.

Between the middle of September and the beginning of May, more than 575,000 Afghans were deported or returned to Afghanistan, according to the UN’s migration agency IOM.

In March, the Pakistani government announced plans to expand deportations to include Afghans who have Proof of Registration Cards, which technically grant people the right to live in Pakistan. The deportations were supposed to begin on 15 April, but the validity of the cards has since been extended until the end of June.

Once that deadline passes, Amnesty International says at least an additional 800,000 Afghans will be at risk of being deported. Ahead of the deadline, there have been reports of police crackdowns in neighbourhoods where Afghan refugees live and of Afghans holding Proof of Registration Cards being arrested.

In the process of carrying out deportations, rights groups and media outlets have documented cases of police conducting night raids into the homes of Afghans. Police have been accused of illegally confiscating jewellery and livestock from Afghan families. There have also been reports of Afghans’ homes being bulldozed, and claims that women and girls have faced sexual harassment and threats of sexual assault from Pakistani authorities.

Those who are deported – or who leave Pakistan preemptively – face a difficult situation in Afghanistan: The country has been battered by decades of war and recent natural disasters; and the economy and aid efforts are both hampered by international sanctions and banking restrictions.

“[Returnees] may have the expectation that the government, UN, or international community will assist [them], but there is still no clear plan on how this many people are going to be integrated into the already fragile Afghan economy,” said Dayne Curry, country director of Mercy Corps in Afghanistan.

‘We do not want to start life from scratch’

Pakistan is in the midst of a severe economic crisis as well, which has hit the livelihoods of Pakistanis and Afghans in the country alike. The deportation campaigns of recent months have also made it more difficult for Afghans to travel between cities for work or even to leave their neighbourhoods or homes for fear of being rounded up by the police.

Still, all of the Afghan families The New Humanitarian spoke to in Chaman said they did not want to return to Afghanistan.

Since returning to power in Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate government has repeatedly been accused of human rights violations, particularly towards women. But Afghans in Chaman also said they worried about being able to earn enough money to secure the bare minimum they need to survive as well as about how they would be able to readjust to living in a country many have spent little time in and that they have heard primarily negative things about for decades.

“Spending one night in Afghanistan is equivalent to spending three years in Pakistan. I could spend three years in hardship in Pakistan, but wouldn’t be able to survive there for a night.”

“I’d rather die in Pakistan than go back to Afghanistan,” Gul, a 55-year-old Afghan woman who goes by one name and who has lived in Pakistan for more than 30 years, told The New Humanitarian. “There is neither meat nor potato [in Afghanistan]. Everything is so expensive that one cannot even afford to buy vegetables.”

Until recently, Gul frequently travelled to Afghanistan to visit family. For decades, all that was required to cross the Durand Line was a national ID card from either country. But last November, as relations between the two countries strained, Pakistan restricted travel to Afghans who possessed valid passports and visas – documents that are often difficult to obtain without paying expensive bribes.

A group of cars, trucks and bags are pictured.
Ali M. Latifi/TNH
Trucks loaded with the belongings of Afghans arriving from Pakistan in the Spin Boldak district of Afghanistan in April 2024.

The restrictions have taken a heavy toll on day labourers – many of them Afghan refugees – in cities like Chaman who rely on cross-border economic activity to get by. Afghan refugees in Chaman told The New Humanitarian that the restrictions, coupled with fears of deportation, have added to their worries. And day labourers and traders have been conducting a sit-in protest in the city since the policy was announced.

Like many, Gul felt the effects of the restrictions immediately. Last month, she had to risk arrest to cross into Afghanistan in secret to visit her daughter before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. She was also unable to bring her daughter with her to Pakistan to attend a family wedding.

In the five days Gul spent in Afghanistan before Eid al-Fitr, she was horrified by what she saw: poverty and what seemed like sky-high prices compared to Pakistan.

“Spending one night in Afghanistan is equivalent to spending three years in Pakistan,” Gul said. “I could spend three years in hardship in Pakistan, but wouldn’t be able to survive there for a night.”

Ram Bibi, 35, shared a similar sentiment. Bibi came to Pakistan from the Gereshk district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province 20 years ago. She recently gave birth to a stillborn baby after having previously lost two other babies in childbirth. “I am unhealthy due to a lack of a nutritious diet and have anaemia,” Bibi said, holding her youngest son, three years old, in her lap.

Her son, Bibi said, also isn’t having his nutritional needs met. Bibi’s husband works as a day labourer. But a recent bout of illness has left him hospitalised and unable to provide for the family.

“Despite the poverty, we have adjusted to our lives here, and we do not want to start life from scratch,” Bibi said.

Bibi has a Proof of Registration Card but could soon face deportation once the end of June extension of the card’s validity expires. Hilay, another Afghan woman living in Chaman, is undocumented. She came to Pakistan three years ago from Kandahar in search of medical care for her son after he fell ill.

Despite it being commonplace for Afghans to seek medical treatment in Pakistan, the Pakistani government has made it difficult for Afghans to obtain visas for such visits, and Afghans end up having to pay $1,000 to $2,000 per person to middlemen to get legal travel documents – a price few can easily afford.

Hilay was forced to sell her home and belongings in Kandahar to be able to bring her son to Pakistan. “I can’t go back to Afghanistan. I have nothing there,” she said.

‘If you don’t leave, we will make you leave’

Across the Durand Line in Afghanistan, Noor Alam, 36, described the environment of fear many Afghans in Pakistan now live in.

At the end of last year – after the deportation announcement – Alam said Pakistani police started going house-to-house looking for Afghans and issuing threats. The message directed toward undocumented Afghans and those with Proof of Registration Cards (also known as yellow cards) was the same, according to Alam. “Go on your way,” he recalled the police saying. “Yellow card or no card, go now.”

This medium shot photo shows a large group of people participating in a sit-in protest has been going on in Chaman since November last year against border curbs.
Somaiyah Hafeez/TNH
A sit-in protest has been going on in Chaman, Pakistan since November last year, when the Pakistani government imposed restrictions on cross-border movement, severely effecting the economy of the city.

Instead of waiting to be rounded up and deported, Alam – who had gone to Pakistan four years ago in search of work – decided to return to Afghanistan on his own.

Imran, a 35-year-old Afghan who had spent his entire life in Pakistan and only gave his first name, made a similar decision. He, as well as others, described mosques in Pakistan broadcasting messages telling Afghans – both documented and undocumented – to leave the country.

“[The authorities] came to our masjids and told us directly, ‘All Afghans, regardless of anything, will have to leave. If you don’t leave, we will make you leave,’’' Imran said.

“I don’t know what I’ll do once I get there. I’ve never been. All I know is the name of the district we’re from. I just have to get there; the rest is up to God.”

The announcements caused so much fear that Imran spent 60,000 Pakistani rupees ($215) to get a truck to drive him, his family, and their belongings from Chaman to the Spin Boldak district in Kandahar. Like several other Afghans The New Humanitarian spoke to, he was holding a Proof of Registration Card in his hand.

Now, Imran said he would have to come up with a further 40,000 to 45,000 Afghanis (around $560 to $640) to take his family and their belongings to Faryab province in northern Afghanistan, where his family is originally from.

“I don’t know what I’ll do once I get there. I’ve never been,” he said. “All I know is the name of the district we’re from. I just have to get there; the rest is up to God.”

Around 75% of returnees who arrive through the Spin Boldak crossing end up staying in Kandahar, which is one of Afghanistan's economic hubs, according to Mohammad Ehsan Nazari, programme coordinator for Mercy Corps in Kandahar.

People in the province are doing what they can to help the returnees, but that help can only go so far and likely isn’t sustainable, Nazari added: Jobs in Afghanistan’s sagging economy are scarce, and rents in the city of Kandahar have gone up by as much as 30% due to the influx returnees.

Against this backdrop, the odds are stacked against returnees, especially those who had been away for several decades. “They really don’t know how to deal with the context here,” Nazari said.

That’s the situation Farzana, a 32-year-old Afghan woman still in Chaman, fears ending up stuck in. Her parents brought her to Pakistan when she was just a few months old. All of her siblings – six brothers and four sisters – were subsequently born in Pakistan. Two of them, however, were recently deported to Afghanistan. What they tell Farzana about life in Afghanistan isn’t assuaging her fears.

“My brother tells me there are no jobs and he wants to come back,” she said. “I have lived my entire life here. Going back [to Afghanistan] would mean starting from scratch.”

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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