Nazir Khan, a 40-year-old Afghan refugee, recently began working as a watchman at a private house in Lahore, capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province. “I am lucky I found work; now I can support my family at least,” he told IRIN.
Khan, who has lived in Pakistan for 25 years, fled Buner district in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) when fighting broke out there between Taliban militants and Pakistan army forces in early May.
According to a situation report on 29 May by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), just over 2.5 million people have been displaced since 2 May.
There is uncertainty over how many Afghan refugees may be included among those.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as of January 2007 Pakistan hosted about 1 million Afghan refugees in camps assisted by UNHCR. However, a 2005 Pakistan government census suggests a further 1.5 million Afghans were living outside camps.
Since 2005, the Pakistan government has stepped up pressure on these people to return to their country.
Nader Farhad, UNHCR spokesman in Kabul, said rates of return to Afghanistan had been slower this year than in previous years, with only 20,000 returning so far.
As fierce fighting broke out in areas of NWFP earlier in May, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, expressed deep concern over the well-being of some 20,000 registered Afghan refugees living in the conflict-affected districts of Buner, Lower Dir and Upper Dir.
“We have reports that many have fled together with the local population. Some have chosen to return to Afghanistan with UNHCR assistance and others have chosen to relocate to existing refugee sites in Pakistan,” Guterres said.
Farhad said that 114,000 Afghans had been living in conflict-affected areas of NWFP and had been forced to relocate to other parts of Pakistan or live with friends and relatives.
Afghan refugees harassed
According to watchman Khan, the Afghans he knows have shunned displacement camps and opted to move in with relatives, often in cities such as Peshawar or Lahore. “I had no idea what the situation would be like at camps. There are so many reports of harassment of Afghans that we were scared of any dealings with officials in case we faced persecution,” he said.
The arrest of Afghans in Pakistan, often after terrorist attacks, has been regularly reported in the local media and drawn calls from the Afghan government on Pakistan to avoid “mistreating” Afghan nationals.
For the Afghans forced to move from places they have called ‘home’ for decades, the new conflict is giving rise to growing anxiety over their future.
“I have lived in Buner since I was 20. I worked as a carpenter there,” said Khan. “I am now considering returning to Afghanistan, but people say the economic situation there is very bad. But then things are tough here too.”
Ahmed Gul, a cousin of Khan, moved in with relatives in Peshawar after leaving the Bajaur tribal area late last year following conflict there. “The future for Afghans is uncertain. Since 2005, when camps were closed in most parts of NWFP for security reasons, we have been treated like criminals. I just don’t know what to do or where to go. The fighting has made our lives very difficult.”