Quetta, Pakistan - Ali Muhammad, an Afghan resident of Chaghai, in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province, was born in 1981, as his family was fleeing the Afghan-Soviet war for the relative safety of Pakistan.
Today, 32 years later, he and 12 of his family members are returning to their homeland. "We know the conditions in Helmand [where I am from]," he says. "We have been in touch with our family members there. They say that it is better now, compared with how it used to be."
Muhammad is one of more than 5.7 million Afghan refugees who have voluntarily repatriated to their home country since 2002, according to figures compiled by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). More than 3.8 million of those have been from Pakistan, a country which still hosts an estimated 2.7 million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees.
Fewer than half of those refugees live in camps (40.6 percent), with the rest residing in rural and urban areas across Pakistan.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan represent one of the largest and most prolonged refugee situations in the world, agencies working in the field say. Their population is assisted by both the UNHCR and the Pakistani government, in the form of the provincial Commissionerates for Afghan Refugees and the Ministry for States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON).
The UNHCR's assistance mainly takes the form of providing support for health, education, infrastructure and community service projects, says Charles Lynch-Staunton, the head of the agency's Quetta office, which oversees services for the approximately 350,000 registered refugees currently residing in Balochistan.
"The UNHCR's main mandate is a protection mandate, and therefore [that is] what we do throughout the refugee population, whether it is in our ten refugee villages, or among the communities, where actually the majority of Afghan refugees are," he explained. "We are able to monitor their protection and situational protection needs, and … we are able to assess those needs and find different solutions for them. Those may be medical solutions, legal solutions, in some cases trying to assist with vocational training."
My family was the first to arrive at this camp, in June 1979. Back then, we did not know the people here, we lived in tents. Slowly, we started to build relationships with those around us. Now, we feel like we are from here, like we belong here.
Old Saranan, located in Pishin district, about 40km from Quetta, is a camp that houses more than 9,000 people and which has been open since 1979. While the homes here are made largely of mud and earth, rather than brick and mortar, and Old Saranan remains cut off from the main electricity grid, residents say that conditions are much better today than they used to be.
And, perhaps more importantly, the administration of the camp is now better organised, and self-run, says Bashir Kakar, a project officer with the UNHCR.
Community elders at the camp have formed committees, which deal with internal issues ranging from funding for the camp's self-run school to proposals for new projects to be presented before the government or the UNHCR. There are currently 11 such proposals in process, and work is ongoing on a water project that was recently approved, bringing fresh water to the camp from 11km away through a pipeline network being laid down by camp residents themselves.
There is a focus on schooling, camp elders say, and when the UNHCR provided enough funding for a school (for both boys and girls) with classes up to Grade 8 (age 14), the community quickly chipped in to run Grades 9 to 11 (up to age 17) through their own funds. Today, 820 children study at the school, which is staffed entirely by residents of the camp.
"The community centre works in various areas, such as health, education and others," says 62-year-old Hayat Khan, one of the leaders of the camp's community committee. "When we have something to propose, we take it to the UNHCR or to one of its implementing partners."
Khan, originally from Kandahar province in Afghanistan, was one of the first residents of Old Saranan. "My family was the first to arrive at this camp, in June 1979. Back then, we did not know the people here, we lived in tents. Slowly, we started to build relationships with those around us. Now, we feel like we are from here, like we belong here."
While that sense of belonging may exist among refugees, a distinct difference is also maintained. Their schooling, for example, is done in Farsi, and the curriculum is that of the Afghan Board of Education, as approved by the Pakistani SAFRON.
Abdul Saroor Kakar, the provincial commissioner for Afghan refugees in Balochistan, told Al Jazeera that, while Pakistan was happy to fulfil its obligations under national and international laws governing conduct with refugees, it was finding itself hard-pressed in terms of resources.
"The host community, which has sustained the refugee population for 30 years, has seen its resources used and its facilities damaged by the extra burden," Kakar explained.
The UN's Refugee Affected Host Areas (RAHA) project is meant to assuage those concerns. Started in 2009, the initiative is aimed at providing infrastructure support to those areas where refugees are being hosted, with a particular focus on education, health, water and sanitation projects that will outlast the refugee population's stay in the country.
Last year, more than 2.2 million people - Pakistani citizens and Afghan refugees alike - benefited from RAHA interventions, according to the UNHCR's figures.
Pakistan's policy for dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis was due to expire on December 31, 2012, and was extended for a further six months. The extension creates a window during which a new policy may be formulated, Kakar explained. But failing that, all 2.7 million refugees in the country - registered or unregistered – will be declared illegal immigrants.
|Some refugees say they would like to move regularly betwen Afghanistan and Pakistan [Asad Hashem/Al Jazeera]
"One message is clear from our own side: that their local integration [in terms of being given Pakistani citizenship] cannot happen in any way. They will remain refugees, and they will have to go, one way or another," said Kakar.
The only "durable solution", Lynch-Staunton agrees, is the voluntary repatriation of the refugees. With that in mind, the UNHCR has been running three Voluntary Repatriation Centres (two in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and one in Balochistan), that have, since 2002, repatriated 3.82 million refugees.
The centre at Baleli, located just a few kilometres outside of Quetta's city centre, repatriated 16,113 people in 2012, out of a total of 83,423 people to be repatriated from Pakistan during the year.
Returnees go through a process of identity verification, where their refugee ID cards (known as PoR, or Proof of Registration, cards) are checked against a national database and finally cancelled (the approximately one million unregistered refugees are not eligible for UNHCR financial assistance). All family members over the age of five also have their eyes scanned and their records checked against the UNHCR's database of returnees, to prevent fraud.
Finally, all family members are given a medical exam by on-site doctors, who identify any issues that may make it difficult for them to travel, and prescribe medicine from a basic on-site store of medications. UNHCR staff also hold an exit interview with the head of the family, to determine if they are well-informed about their decision to move back, and if they will require any follow-up assistance from the agency's staff in Afghanistan.
Once verified, each individual is given a grant of $150 to aid in the expenses associated with repatriation, and a further discretionary grant of up to $30 based on their final destination and the transportation costs associated with getting there. The funds are disbursed on their arrival in Afghanistan at special encashment centres set up for the purpose.
Many returning refugees, however, face a dire situation when they return. According to the UN's figures, returning citizens face 35 percent lower rates of access to land, and male unemployment that is 63 percent higher than that of their counterparts who stayed in the country.
Once cycled through the repatriation process, however, the refugees cannot return to Pakistan easily - they will have to apply for visas if they wish to return to a land that, for many, has now become home.
"My children have lived here their whole lives," says Muhammad, who is bound for Helmand. "So, obviously, they don't want to go home. But the money we get here - hopefully it will help us set up a new life."
With the refugee population's stay as prolonged as it has been, they have laid down roots here, many say.
"Today," says Hayat Khan, "both are my countries. I have received much love here … If I am ever given a choice, I would like to live both in my native Kandahar, and here, and come and go between the two houses."
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim