Earlier this week, Pakistan and Afghanistan reached an agreement, planning for the return phased over three years of 1.8 million Afghan refugees. Pakistan’s Minister of Border Affairs, Aftab Sherpao and Afghanistan’s Minister for Refugee Affairs agreed to the plan on Tuesday, calling for the closure of refugee camps some created as early as 1979 when the Soviets invaded.
During the last two decades, more than three million Afghans have sought refuge in Pakistan, according to the Associated Press. Since January, roughly 1.5 million refugees have returned home, but 1.8 million remain, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Still, conditions throughout the region remain harsh, exacerbated by the severe winter. Last week, following a review of its data, the UNHCR released new numbers showing a decline in the Afghan refugee population for nine camps in Pakistan’s North West Frontier province. The drop from 54,767 to 49,943 people was attributed to earlier record-keeping inaccuracies as well as recent deaths from the cold winter.
Aid agencies caution that plans to return refugees to Afghanistan are premature, given the unstable environment. Last year, in Kabul alone, returning refugees boosted the population from 1.7 million to 2.5 million. Still, the AP reports that many have fled again due to decrepit infrastructure and continued violence, including battling warlords, the recent bombing of 12 girls’ schools; threats to Loya Jirga delegates who have spoken out for human rights, including Minister of Women’s Affairs Dr. Sima Samar; the assassination of two government ministers; violence against women in the Northern provinces; violence against humanitarian aid workers; and the continued use of tactics of intimidation against the return of girls to school. The need for expansion of peacekeeping forces both within and beyond Kabul remains urgent.
In southern Afghanistan, where there are nearly 400,000 “internally displaced people”, the recent deaths of 10 refugee children has prompted the UN to re-examine its winter aid efforts, reported the BBC. Despite the distribution of blankets and supplies to more than two million people, additional assistance is critically needed.