Since the 1970s, millions of Afghans have fled to Pakistan to escape ongoing violence and natural disaster. They’ve found safety, built families and restarted their lives. However, many are now being forced to return.

The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has historically been easy to cross. One million registered Afghan refugees and 1.5 million undocumented Afghan refugees were estimated to be living in Pakistan at the start of 2016. But after thirty years hosting them, Pakistan’s government is concerned that Afghans are linked to terrorism and are putting a strain on the economy.

Pressured to leave, more than 600,000 refugees have already repatriated to Afghanistan. Those who remain are threatened with deportation, and fear being separated from their families, homes and careers. International humanitarian agencies expect at least a half-million or more to return in 2017.

It’s a refugee problem that is being pushed onto a country that stands no chance of ever solving it.

A young girl waits while her family -- Afghan refugees forced to return from Pakistan -- receive emergency cash and relief supplies from the IRC in Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan's Nangarhar province.
Photo: Andrew Quilty/IRC

Afghanistan remains one of the most violent and unstable countries in the world. Displacement is now at an all-time high, with one million people uprooted inside their own country and three million seeking safety in other countries. With 70 percent of Afghans living in chronic poverty and unemployment standing at 40 percent, the nation is not economically or politically prepared to support an influx of returning refugees.

As the situation inside Afghanistan deteriorates, options for safe haven become increasingly slim. Afghans are the second-largest group behind Syrians to try to seek safe haven in Europe, but its flailing asylum and resettlement system remains inaccessible these “second-class” refugees. 

Many of the refugees who are returning to Afghanistan have lived in Pakistan for decades, and will need support from the government and aid groups as they try to find shelter, jobs and schools. Those born in Pakistan will be caught between cultures, unsure of whether to identify with their ancestry or the land where they were raised. 

The International Rescue Committee has been supporting the Afghan people for nearly four decades as they endure displacement and poverty. We’ve now begun scaling up our response in the form of emergency assistance. The IRC is aiding returning refugees on both sides of the border with: cash for rent; child protection services, including safe spaces for learning and play; shelter and relief supplies, such as tents, soap and water; emergency education in the form of community-based teaching, and legal aid in registration and obtaining official documentation.

A family sitting together.

These children stay with relatives as their father Shakrullah, 26 (not pictured), looks for work as a day laborer. Shakrullah was born in Pakistan but harassment and uncertain legal status forced his family to leave their homes in a camp for Afghan refugees. The IRC is supporting them with emergency cash.

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Abu asleep under a mosquito net.

Two-year-old Abu sleeps under a mosquito net in the heat of the day in Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar. His family, undocumented Afghan refugees, returned nine months ago after pressure from Pakistani authorities. When they arrived the IRC provided them with a tent and 17,000 Afghanis ($250) in cash they now use to pay rent.

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Women carrying cash.

Women receive cash relief for their families at the Afghan government's Directorate for Refugees and Repatriation office. The IRC distributes the cash, along with emergency supplies such as light blankets and water purification tablets, to returning families in need.

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A small child resting on Rahmat's shoulders.

A year ago, while Rahmat,23, and his family were still in Pakistan, a propane cylinder used for cooking exploded in their home, severely burning Shah and his two children. The IRC has paid the family's rent for three months and provided cash grants, which have mostly gone toward treatment for the children's burns.

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Boys washing a water buffalo in a river outside Jalalabad.

Boys wash water buffalo in a river outside Jalalabad. Nearby, a wall is being built with funding from the IRC to protect a water canal from the river. The IRC has been supporting the Afghan people for nearly four decades as they endure displacement and poverty. 

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