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Afghan Refugees in Pakistan Anxious as Year-End Looms

ISLAMABAD - One out of every four refugees in the world is from Afghanistan, and 95 percent of them live either in Iran or Pakistan. Afghan refugees are scheduled to lose their legal residency at the end of the year, but many are not ready to return.

There are more Afghan refugees than any other nationality in the world. Many live in camps or slums on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital.

Doctor Mohamed Nazar came here from Afghanistan almost 18 years ago.

"There are no facilities for the children, there is no hygiene, no electricity, there are scorpions and snakes," said Nazar. "We only have medicine for headaches. For anything else they go to the hospital."

Since 2002, roughly 5.5 million Afghans have returned to their country. But 1.7 million are still registered in Pakistan, scattered among 80 camps.

There are at least another million undocumented Afghans.

In this unofficial camp, life is precarious. Sana Gul is a community elder here, responsible for 85 households

"Every day police come and ask us for money," said Gul. "Most of us don't have immigrant IDs, and if we refuse to pay them, they take us to the police stations and threaten to deport us, then we have pay them more."

Despite their situation, Duniya Aslam Khan of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees expects few Afghans will leave anytime soon.

"There's a whole generation who were born in Pakistan and were raised in Pakistan and know of no other country except Pakistan. The remaining ones who don't feel they can go back, cite security as the number one reason for not returning," said Khan.

After 30 years in exile, Ghulum Sarwar has 10 children, three grandchildren and many reasons to stay where he is.

"We have no other choice. We have to live here," said Sarwar. "We know we face a lot of problems here, but in Afghanistan there are more problems, like the Taliban, terrorism."

Pakistan says registered refugees can stay until the end of the year, and is working to extend the stay of some of the most vulnerable as well as students and businessmen.

But Minister of States and Frontier Regions Shaukat Ullah says the government can no longer afford to house so many.

"It's a big burden on our economy, we are facing that problem," said Ullah.

While millions of Afghans have already gone back home, the UNHCR says many often find it hard to reintegrate into the villages they left. Some have now returned to Pakistan.
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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.