Pakistan says Afghan refugees must leave the country by December 31.
Children of Afghan families returning from Pakistan, who do not go to school and have no access to education, are increasingly at risk of early marriage and child labour, according to a new survey.
The survey released by Save the Children on Wednesday reveals an alarming crisis in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, where the polling took place among returnees from Pakistan.
It warns the situation could deteriorate further as more than 3,500 Afghans return from Pakistan on a daily basis, after Islamabad tightened regulations on those living illegally in the country.
So far this year, more than 650,000 Afghans – a mix of registered and unregistered refugees – have returned from Pakistan, with the majority planning to stay in Nangarhar, at least until the end of winter.
Hundreds of thousands more Afghans are expected to be repatriated in the coming months.
Many of the returnees have no money and lack any sort of documents or ID papers. These returnees are not eligible for aid from UN agencies.
Parents facing poverty often feel the only stable choice they can make is to arrange a marriage for their child, or to bring the children into the workforce, the survey found.
“We are really concerned about the risks that are threatening the children and the future of the children, if the situation continues,” said Bahirullah Wyaar, an adviser at Save the Children in Kabul.
“If the children, especially the girls, do not have access to education, it puts them at the risk of early marriages.”
In June, Pakistan’s government extended a deadline for Afghan refugees, who are deemed to be staying in Pakistan illegally, to return home by the end of the year or face deportation.
Although Kabul welcomed the extension, Afghanistan’s refugees and repatriation minister, Sayed Hossain Alemi Balki, said he wanted the deadline extended until December 2017.
He also said Pakistani police were harassing refugees, and said Islamabad should not forcibly repatriate Afghan refugees when the new deadline expires.
Millions of Afghans fled their country to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the civil war of 1992-1996 – between US-backed groups that had fought the Soviets – and again, after the Taliban came to power in 1996 – creating one of the world’s largest refugee populations.
Both Pakistan and Iran have been pressing for them to leave.
Ana Locsin, the Save the Children’s director in Afghanistan, said that many Afghans “are living out in the open, or in tents, so they have no real semblance of shelter, let alone security. They often feel they have little choice but to send their child to find work, or to marry off their daughters.”