KABUL: After eight years of building his life in Islamabad, Abdul Shakor hurriedly packed all the possessions his family could take on a one-way trip as a Pakistan-wide crackdown on undocumented foreign nationals forced him to return to Afghanistan last week.
Shakor’s mother, wife and four children were among hundreds of thousands of Afghans who since last month have been flocking to the border to cross to their country of origin, ordered by Pakistani authorities to leave voluntarily or face deportation.
While the decision covered all the foreigners deemed as living in the country illegally, it hit Afghans the most as some 1.7 million of them — out of the total of 4 million — were living in Pakistan unregistered.
Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan during decades of conflict, after their homeland was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979. Over the years, some would return, and some more would flee Afghanistan — most recently when the Taliban took over the war-torn country following the withdrawal of US-led forces in 2021.
But since last month, Afghan authorities estimate that around 400,000 of them have made their way back.
Shakor chose to go to Kabul, where his sister lives and would share her room with his family.
“We arrived in Kabul and we have nothing,” he told Arab News.
“It was quite hard to leave Pakistan so suddenly … the Pakistani government should have given us at least five to six months to leave, but it did not. We are asking the current government of Afghanistan to provide us shelter and opportunity to work, nothing else.”
The Afghan administration has pledged support for the returnees, but it is itself already struggling with a collapsing economy. Since the Taliban takeover, the country has been hit by international sanctions and its unemployment has more than doubled.
While the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation is handing out cash to each returning family, it is a drop in the ocean of needs.
“When we arrived at the Torkham crossing point, we received 10,000 afghanis ($140) in cash from Afghanistan’s Islamic Emirate officials who told us they would give us some land and assistance,” said Gul Agha, who for the past 15 years had been living in Haripur, in Pakistan’s northwest.
“We have to find a home, which is a big problem for me … It was really hard not only for me but for my entire family to leave Pakistan after we spent 15 years there. We had a very peaceful environment there and work opportunities.”
The deadline Pakistan set for unregistered foreigners to leave lapsed on Nov. 1. Since then, round-up operations have been taking place across the country.
Ahmadullah, another returnee who left Afghanistan’s Kapisa province for Pakistan seven years ago, made it a point of honor to not be expelled in such a way.
“I did not forcibly leave Pakistan because I took into consideration my family’s dignity. We decided to leave Pakistan before Pakistani security forces could come to our home,” he told Arab News.
Ahmadullah was working as a laborer in Peshawar, earning enough to send his children to school.
“All my children were studying in Peshawar, so it was really heartbreaking,” he said. “It was really hard to bring an end to our life in Pakistan.”