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Afghan refugees weigh options as 2014 looms

With NATO withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2014, Afghan refugees in India predict an uncertain future.

Last updated: 14 Nov 2013 06:12
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Fewer and fewer Afghans have repatriated as the 2014 troop withdrawal nears [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

Mahmud Ahmad, an Afghan refugee who works as a waiter in the Indian capital, New Delhi, is worried whether he will ever be able to return to his homeland.

Ahmad is among the more than 18,000 Afghan refugees living in India - many of whom are reluctant to return to their country, fearing more violence when US-led NATO troops withdraw next year.

"The situation in Afghanistan is not good. There are no jobs. The fighting will intensify more when the US forces leave. My relatives too will leave the country soon," said 23-year-old Ahmad.

With chances of a regular job slim, Ahmad - who fled Herat province in 2010 - makes his living by waiting tables in New Delhi's Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood, where most of the city's Afghan refugees stay. The safety makes up for the low wages in his adopted country. "At least there is no fear of getting killed or maimed here," he said.

Mohammad Husham, 22, an Afghan graduate student of commerce studying in India, shares Ahmad's concerns.

"If [the] US withdraws completely, there will be chaos again in Afghanistan. I am not saying US should stay, but there is no guarantee that Taliban won't return," Husham told Al Jazeera. "Afghan refugees in India may want to return to Afghanistan, but that stage is not now."

Repatriation slows

As many as six million refugees have voluntarily repatriated to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran since 2001, when the Taliban was forced out of power. But the flow of repatriates has now slowed to a trickle.

This year has witnessed a particularly large number of displaced Afghans, moving both internally and abroad, amid apprehension that the Taliban will gain power and violence will increase as US troops pull out. The UN reports that the number of Afghan refugees who have returned this year is 40 percent lower than the number who returned during the same period last year.

"Who would want to come back in these conditions? The number of people fleeing Afghanistan far exceeds those coming back," said Dr Abdul Samad Hami, deputy minister of the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR). "The number of internally displaced people (IDPs) is increasing and the out-migration is increasing too. This year, there has been a spike in the applications for European countries."

Many of those who cannot afford to move further afield are fleeing to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan already hosts more Afghan refugees than any other country, with 1.6 million Afghans living there, and Iran has the second-highest figure, giving refuge to more than 800,000. As of September 30 this year, there were 590,184 Afghans registered by UN refugee agency UNHCR as "internally displaced", compared with about 425,000 as of the middle of last year.

"The figures published by the UN to some extent are alarming and a cause of significant humanitarian concern," said Dan Tyler, a regional adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council. "These may be conservative figures, given that they do not capture IDPs scattered in urban areas, those displaced by natural disasters, or IDPs not accessible to humanitarian agencies for security reasons."

Fight or flight

More than a decade after the US invasion, peace has remained elusive as the Taliban has continued launching deadly attacks against NATO forces and civilians alike. With the possibility of a civil war and the Taliban remerging as a major force, refugees are weighing their options.

There is pressure to return, but to return to what?

Nassim Majidi, Afghan migration expert

"Afghan households contemplating flight increasingly have little choice other than relocation within Afghanistan, and this is likely why the humanitarian community is focusing efforts on internal displacements," said Tyler.

The Afghan government has struggled to cope with the sheer number of internally displaced people. "There are no jobs in Afghanistan. The IDPs face food and water shortages, and there is no land availability where the IDPs should be ideally stationed," said Hami, the deputy MoRR minister.

Earlier this year, UNHCR Commissioner Antonio Guterres told media his organisation had identified 48 areas in Afghanistan that were found to be "sufficiently conducive for the return of people". But the unstable situation in the country does not encourage repatriation.

A weak economy is also a factor dissuading refugees from returning.

"There are increasing pressures for Afghan youth to return home - whether from refugee-hosting countries, asylum countries, or from domestic host communities," said Nassim Majidi, a consultant and expert on displacement and migration in Afghanistan. "There is pressure to return, but to return to what?"

Every year, Majidi said, about 400,000 youth enter the labour market in Afghanistan. Most work in urban centres, and most have limited skills. "The current demand and shortage of jobs means many are opting to leave if they can, while those who stay can potentially act as a destabilising force - instead of contributing to a positive development process."

Even if peace does come to Afghanistan, there are some groups who will never try to return to their homeland - such as Afghanistan's Christian minority.

"The constitution and law of Afghanistan has condemned us because of our conversion to Christianity. To us, it doesn't matter whether Americans stay or leave Afghanistan," said Abooda Christ, who represents the country's Christian refugees in India.

Although Afghanistan has been battered by violence for decades, many still hope for a peaceful country in the future.

"Peace is possible," said Husham. "My mother is a Tajik and father a Pashtun. If only 10 percent of these two communities end hostilities with each other, we will have a better Afghanistan - no matter whether NATO pulls out or not. We can form a government together.

"But it needs all sides to think positively."

Follow Baba Umar on Twitter: @Babaumarr

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Al Jazeera
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