LAHORE, Pakistan — Makeshift refugee settlements have sprouted up on the barren stretch of the Afghanistan desert that extends east toward the bustling city of Jalalabad, about an hour’s drive from the border with Pakistan.
It’s here in a forbidding environment that Jamal Juma, an Afghan man in his 60s, and his family of 12 have fashioned a temporary home — a handmade hut of mud.
Like many of his neighbors in the settlements, Mr. Juma was kicked out of Pakistan five months ago after living in the country as a refugee for the past quarter-century.
“We had shops and small businesses,” he said, “but the police and other security forces forced us to leave.”
Now back in his native land, Mr. Juma has few options. Although he owns a modest swath of land in the lush mountainous foothills of Baghlan province in northeastern Afghanistan, violence in that region has forced him to settle near Kabul.
“Here, life is very tough — no water, living in a very cold mud house,” said Mr. Juma, adding that he is now nearly penniless after building his hut. “We don’t have anything. What to do? The [Afghan] government should help us.”
His plight is the direct consequence of a momentous move by the Pakistani government to address one of the world’s biggest refugee crises, which can trace its roots back to the Afghan mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet Union’s invasion during the Carter administration. Last summer, Pakistan announced plans to begin deporting many of the roughly 3 million Afghan refugees living in the country without documentation in border areas.
Pakistan resumed the repatriation after a winter break, sending some 1,200 people across a heavily policed border crossing, the U.N. reported Monday. Islamabad closed the border in February after a number of cross-border strikes blamed for the death of 130 people, announcing at the time that it had begun planning for a fence along the 1,510-mile border between the two countries.
The Afghan refugees in Pakistan strain social services and spark resentment in a country already facing massive economic and political tensions. Pakistani authorities have often resorted to abuse, imprisonment and threats of violence while driving more than 600,000 refugees out of the country since June, according to a report issued last month by Human Rights Watch.
About 10,000 Afghans have returned from Pakistan this year, according to a situation report released this month by the United Nations International Organization for Migration.
The number of forced repatriations is expected to increase this spring. Human Rights Watch estimated that more than 1 million Afghans living in Pakistan would eventually return to Afghanistan.
The big worry is what awaits those returning home and whether the even more fragile Afghan economy can absorb the influx.
The government in Kabul has few safe havens to harbor those newcomers. The country is combating housing shortages, a crumbling economy, rife political corruption, the Taliban’s potent military insurgency and a growing presence of the Islamic State.
The influx of returnees will only worsen the vulnerability of Afghanistan’s strained institutions, said Laurence Hart, the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission in Afghanistan.
“They were already vulnerable before with the increasing number of arrivals. This puts a lot of burden on the health and educational services, water, nutrition,” Mr. Hart said, adding that a temporary solution needs to be found to help returnees.
Scrambling for a plan
Afghan officials acknowledge that they are still scrambling to develop a plan to somehow accommodate the hundreds of thousands expected to arrive this year.
“This was something unprecedented,” said Edris Lutfi, Afghanistan’s national migration coordinator for the country’s chief executive. The government “didn’t think the numbers would be this high for the returnees.”
Even Germany, with a modern social safety net and one of the world’s largest economies, struggled to build accommodations for some of the over 1 million individuals who sought asylum in the country since 2015. Two years later, thousands are still due to receive permanent housing.
“A country with the size and economy of Germany could only build 50,000 housing units for the refugees and migrants that went there,” Mr. Lutfi said. “For Afghanistan, it will take years to accommodate these people.”
For would-be refugees like Gul Bibi, a 56-year-old Afghan mother of five living on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan is the only home she has ever known. She fled Afghanistan in 1979 after the Soviet invasion when she was 19. Her family fled again from Pakistan after being harassed by police.
“After the recent attacks in Lahore, the police raided our colony and picked up my sons along with several other men from the community,” she said in reference to the Feb. 13 suicide attack that killed 14 people.
“For decades, this has been our home — I got married here, raised my family here and now Pakistan wants us to leave,” she said. “We are going back to Afghanistan, but with a heavy heart. We will never forget how we were maltreated.”
For ordinary Pakistanis, the government’s decision remains divisive. Some Pakistanis see Afghan refugee settlements as hotbeds of terrorist activity. But others sympathize with those who must leave after living their entire lives in Pakistan and contributing economically and socially to the country.
“Being a mother myself, I feel for the refugees, especially the young children standing in long queues [to get a residence permit] with nowhere to go,” said Shehnila Daniyal, a 38-year-old Pakistani homemaker from Lahore. “It’s really sad that we are doing this to our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
Human Rights Watch accused the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees of turning a blind eye to the Pakistani government’s announcement and the plight of the displaced Afghans.
“UNHCR failed to ensure that refugees were fully informed of the conditions to which they were returning before deciding to leave,” Human Rights Watch asserted in a recent report that criticized a U.N. cash grant of up to $400 as an incentive for refugees to return to Afghanistan.
U.N. officials reject the claims.
Human Rights Watch was also worried that other areas, most notably the European Union, will follow the lead of Pakistan, forcibly repatriating tens of thousands of Afghans who have applied for refugee status while fleeing the instability and deprivation of their homeland, putting even more pressure on Kabul. Germany, for instance, has begun deporting asylum seekers denied permanent visas back to Afghanistan, which it has reclassified as a safe country of origin.
Some who have returned say it’s a mixed blessing.
“For the first time in twenty-five years, I came back to my country,” Mr. Juma said. “Despite all the difficulties here since coming from Pakistan, I am still happy to live in my own country.”