by Raheela Nazir
ISLAMABAD, Feb. 21 (Xinhua) -- Wali Khan Azizi used to run a small carpet shop in Islamabad but the 55-year-old Afghan who had been staying in Islamabad as a refugee sold his carpets and other household goods recently in anticipation of returning to Afghanistan.
It would be like becoming an "immigrant" all over again, as most of the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan have been residing here for decades, said Azizi. "What will I do there?" asked the bearded Afghan when asked why he does not want to return his homeland.
Azizi, among millions of Afghan refugees, shifted to Pakistan after the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. The first wave of Afghan refugees to Pakistan began at that time in the late 1970s. By the end of 2001, there were more than 4 millions Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Azizi's worries came after the Pakistani government's decision on Jan. 31 to grant only a two-month extension for their permission to stay in Pakistan for a total of 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, citing security and economic threats the country is facing due to the refugees.
Islamabad's move has caused chaos among refugee families. Uncertainty and fear has gripped Afghan refugees as the 60-day deadline for refugee repatriation is approaching.
According to the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) here, the country has been home to millions of Afghan refugees for the past 33 years. Despite the repatriation of approximately 3.7 million since 2002.
In addition, the government has registered 700,000 undocumented Afghans during a six-month campaign, which began last August, according to SAFRON.
Pakistan has extended the validity of Afghan refugees' stay permission at least seven times in the past, but the government here said that January's extension would be the last one.
"Pakistan's economy has carried the burden of hosting Afghan refugees for a long time and under the present circumstances cannot sustain it further," said a statement by the Pakistani federal cabinet last month.
Pakistan has commitments with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Afghan government that there would be no forced returns.
"We want Afghan refugees to return with dignity as soon as possible. No doubt volunteer repatriation is the focus, we all should take steps for creating favorable conditions for their return," Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesperson Muhammad Faisal said in a recent briefing.
In fact, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have deteriorated in recent years and tension heightened after several terror attacks in both countries. Tension was further stoked as they accused each other's insurgents of carrying out the attacks.
On Saturday, Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said at the Munich Security Conference in Germany that Pakistan had been hosting 3 million Afghan refugees and now, the time had come to repatriate these refugees to their own country in order to defeat terrorism.
"It is the only way we can ensure that no one is misusing our hospitality and soil for mischief in Afghanistan," the army chief said.
Following a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 25 in the northwestern Pakistani district of Kurram, Pakistan's military said the target had been hiding in an Afghan refugee camp.
Mirvaiz Khan, an Afghan residing in Islamabad as a refugee, spent many sleepless nights due to Pakistan's decision to repatriate Afghan refugees.
"I run a well-settled food business under the name of Afghan cuisine in Islamabad, but I don't see any chance of my success in Afghanistan in the presence of terrorism. My family is a business community, we have no land, no other source of income in Afghanistan," Khan told Xinhua.
The conditions are so bleak in Afghanistan that many returnees are sneaking back across the porous border and quietly taking up their lives in Pakistan. In 2016, nearly 400,000 refugees returned to their homeland during a campaign by Pakistan. Last year, about 60,000 came back again, said a senior Pakistani government official.
Abdullah Khan, 60, came to Pakistan from Afghanistan when he was 15. After living for more than four decades in Peshawar, a northwestern city in Pakistan, he was repatriated with his wife and children in 2016 but came back a few months later.
"It was the most unpleasant experience in my life," Khan told Xinhua, adding that there were no doctors, no clinics, no clean water and no employment. Basically nothing in Afghanistan but bad roads with the constant fear of a brutal death at the hands of terrorists.
The elders of the refugees in Peshawar where most of the Afghan refugees are residing, also expressed discontentment at the "leaving order" and formed a committee to start a campaign to convince the government to review the deadline.
"The return of refugees is not possible until peace is restored in Afghanistan," said Malik Abdul Ghafar Shinwari, a senior member of the committee, adding that Pakistan must give three to five years' notice to the refugees as the situation in Afghanistan is not favorable for living a normal life.
The UNHCR in Pakistan is facilitating a voluntary repatriation program for Afghan refugees and pays 200 U.S. dollars to every refugee upon returning to Afghanistan. The voluntary return program has been suspended due to winter since October 2017 and will restart in March again, said government officials.
"It took 30 years of my life to reach a position where I can provide a shelter for my family and one of my sons is earning for us now, while the other is going to school. If we go back to Afghanistan, it will take another 30 years to build a house and get jobs," Azizi said.
The middle-aged eyes grew misty as he recalled his life in Pakistan. "Though life in Pakistan was not a bed of roses at least I always feel safe here, and my children have an opportunity to get quality education and healthcare," he explained.