ISLAMABAD - The United Nations says more than 200,000 Afghan refugees have returned to their war-torn country from Pakistan this year, more than half of them within the past five weeks, despite intensification in Taliban-led hostilities in Afghanistan.
The overall figures represent the highest number since 2007 when more than 360,000 refugees went back to Afghanistan under the UNHCR-sponsored voluntary repatriation program, officials noted.
Several factors are contributing to the unusual rise in the number of Afghan families choosing repatriation, but the exodus is “largely voluntary,” says Dunya Khan, a UNHCR spokesperson in Pakistan.
In addition she says Pakistan introduced a new border management system in early June to regulate movement and discourage illegal crossers on its nearly 2,600-kilometer porous frontier with Afghanistan.
Khan says the new border controls require Afghans to carry valid travel documents and visas to enter Pakistan, prompting around 6,000 Afghans to go back every day.
“There were many (refugee) families who were split in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many heads of the families were working in Afghanistan and coming to Pakistan to visit their families. Since the travel has been regularized, therefore, the majority of the Afghans think that for every trip it is not really possible to get a visa, and they have decided to go back to Afghanistan," Khan explained.
Pakistan still hosts about 1.5-million registered Afghan refugees, while another estimated one million are living illegally.
For decades, Afghans were moving across the border on special permits, without any restrictions or Pakistani visas.
But rising tensions between the two countries over mutual terror allegations have prompted Islamabad to tighten the cross-border movement, saying it will help deter terrorist infiltration and ease bilateral tensions.
The undocumented Afghans are currently subjected to a Pakistani police crackdown, apparently to push them to go back to their country.
Authorities say the illegal Afghan community, and in some cases even registered refugee populations, are being used by anti-state elements to plot terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
Khan says the UNHCR decision to double the cash grant for voluntary returnees from $200 to $400 per person in mid-June, and a newly-launched campaign by the Afghan government to encourage its displaced citizens to return to their country are also contributing factors for speeding up the voluntary repatriation process.
“The government of Afghanistan, for the first time, has proactively started advocating for Afghan refugees to come back to their country and take part in the nation-building process, and many Afghan people now feel that connection and the warm welcome which is being extended to them,” Khan noted.
The Pakistan government has been pushing Kabul to arrange for the return of nearly all Afghans because it insists their presence has put pressure on infrastructure and the local economy, which has increasingly upset host communities.
Under the policy, Islamabad has declined to agree to an Afghan request for extending the legal stay of refugees for two years. The government has only recently given the registered Afghans until next March to go back to Afghanistan, a long delayed deadline.
Khan says the delayed announcement increased anxiety and insecurity among Afghan refugees, prompting many families to rush back to their country.
She added while UNHCR has not documented any significant instances in which registered refugees have faced police harassment and coercion, but such actions against undocumented Afghans have generally scared the displaced community.
U.N. officials estimate more than one million people will be on the move in Afghanistan by the end of this year because of displacements the Afghan conflict is causing and because of the large number of refugee families returning to Pakistan and Iran.
The Afghan government is also under pressure from the European Union to take back tens of thousands Afghan migrants seeking asylum there.