ISLAMABAD— In this informal refugee settlement on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital, more than 450 families from different parts of Afghanistan live under extremely difficult conditions. Having fled decades of conflict and persecution at home, they represent only a handful of the 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan facing economic hardships, health setbacks and a lack of education.
“The refugees have been here for a long time," said Maya Ameratunga of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan. "Many of them have been here for 30 years, many of them have been born in Pakistan.”
Ameratunga says UNHCR has been successfully running its voluntary repatriation program for Afghan refugees since 2002, but the remaining population is now increasingly reluctant to go back.
With political uncertainties about Afghanistan’s presidential election only fueling long-term security and economic worries, many are resisting international efforts to repatriate them.
“So, far 3.8 million Afghans from Pakistan have already repatriated, including many people from here, so that same option is available to this refugee population. But I can understand that they want to wait until after the elections," she said. "They want to wait until after the international troops withdraw from Afghanistan and they want to see that there will be peace and stability in Afghanistan before they decide to go back.”
Shah Jamroze Khan, a longtime Afghan refugee, says although his country has seen a lot of positive changes and development since his family fled to Pakistan, he complains the Kabul government has paid almost no attention to the resettlement of Afghans. He is not very optimistic about the new political administration.
“Whatever [the new administration] do will only be known when they practically demonstrate it to benefit Afghans returning to their country," he said via translator. "If the refugees end up confronting the same hardships that they are facing in Pakistan, they would prefer not to go back to Afghanistan.”
Speaking at a ceremony in Islamabad, Afghan ambassador to Pakistan Janan Mosazai reiterated Kabul’s appreciation for Pakistan’s long-running “hospitality and generosity” to millions of Afghans.
“But it is time for us to go back, to go back to Afghanistan and to take part in the reconstruction and development of the new Afghanistan that has emerged over the past 13 years,” he said.
Pakistan has recently agreed to allow Afghan refugees to stay in the country until the end of 2015, citing its own economic and security challenges.
But aid workers see Afghanistan's political turmoil as a major setback in the campaign to persuade Pakistan's 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees to return.