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Decades Later, Afghan Refugees Face Uncertain Homecoming

Thousands of Afghans are making their way home after years and years living as refugees in neighboring Pakistan. For many of the migrants, their native country is now a foreign place.

Afghan refugees going home to Pakistan
Afghan refugees going home to Pakistan
Shadi Khan Saif

KABUL — Migration has left deep marks on the lives of Afghans, adding to a sense of national despair that is often and poignantly reflected in the country's folk songs.

For decades, starting with the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, people have been forced to flee. Now, though, some of those who left are having to migrate yet again, this time back into Afghanistan.

So far this year, a record 30,000 Afghan refugees in neighboring Pakistan have packed up and returned to their native land for good. Another 3 million may follow in the coming months due to mounting persecution and uncertainty surrounding the legal status of their stay.

Earlier this year, Pakistan offered Afghan refugees a last-minute grace period of six months, but warned that after this, there will be no more residency extensions. Authorities there are also offering Afghans a financial incentive to leave, according to Nader Farhad, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"In the last month alone we saw a large number of refugees return because of the increased stipend and growing persecution in Pakistan," he says. "Each returning refugee is now paid $400, so a family of let's say five members can get up to $2,000."

In the past, the refugees were only paid around $200 — hardly enough to even cover the transportation costs.

While thousands have now decided to return to Afghanistan, most have no idea what they will do next. Tila Mohammad, a father of four, spent 25 years as a refugee in Pakistan. He returned literally empty handed.

"Look at my hands," he says. "With these bare hands, we are working in this open field to erect a mud house for the children to live in. Both governments Afghanistan and Pakistan promised us help. But we haven't gotten anything except the money given to us on arrival by the UNHCR."

Mohammad's story is shared by almost everyone repatriated back to Afghanistan from Pakistan. Deprived of many basic facilities in Pakistan, they lived a life of compromise and sacrifice. Malik Sedique, an elderly Afghan who migrated to Pakistan during the 1980s, says it doesn't look much different now.

"We were called refugees throughout our stay in Pakistan. But now that we're back, people are saying the "refugees' have returned," she says. "In all those years, many women become widows. Children became orphans. They should be welcomed back home warmly, but that's the case."

Almost every returning family claims to have paid thousands of rupees to the Pakistani border forces for permission to carry wood, animals, trunks, utensils and other goods across the border.

Many parts of modern-day Pakistan, including the whole of northwestern Khyber Pakthunwa, and many districts of southwestern Baluchistan were part of the greater Afghanistan before British rule over India.

[rebelmouse-image 27090410 alt="""" original_size="740x388" expand=1]

Photo: Shadi Khan Saif

An overwhelming majority of the Afghan refugees are ethnic Pashtuns, meaning they share an ethnic lineage with their Pakistani hosts.

Analyst Tahir Zaland believes the refugees bore the brunt of cold ties between the two countries that worsened after cross-border skirmishes last month. "Ultimately it is a good thing that these refugees return to their home country. But the government and aid agencies should create a better environment for them to integrate and overcome the early problems," he explains.

The Afghan government has promised to provide land to each repatriated family. In Kabul, land has already been designated for the refugees in four areas, but the allocation process is slow and complicated.

Still, some, like Dawlat Khan, a recently repatriated Afghan, are happy to be home. "Thank God it is our own country," he says. "One can die with honor in one's own land. In a foreign land even a prince isn't really a prince."

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The Problem With Always Blaming Climate Change For Natural Disasters

Climate change is real, but a closer look at the science shows there are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters. It is important to raise awareness about the long-term impact of global warming, but there's a risk in overstating its role in the latest floods or fires.

People on foot, on bikes, motorcycles, scooters and cars navigate through a flooded street during the day time.

Karachi - People wade through flood water after heavy rain in a southern Pakistani city

Xinhua / ZUMA
Axel Bojanowski


BERLIN — In September, thousands of people lost their lives when dams collapsed during flooding in Libya. Engineers had warned that the dams were structurally unsound.

Two years ago, dozens died in floods in western Germany, a region that had experienced a number of similar floods in earlier centuries, where thousands of houses had been built on the natural floodplain.

Last year saw more than 1,000 people lose their lives during monsoon floods in Pakistan. Studies showed that the impact of flooding in the region was exacerbated by the proximity of human settlements, the outdated river management system, high poverty rates and political instability in Pakistan.

There are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters, but one dominates the headlines: climate change. That is because of so-called attribution studies, which are published very quickly after these disasters to highlight how human-caused climate change contributes to extreme weather events. After the flooding in Libya, German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described climate change as a “serial offender," while the Tageszeitung wrote that “the climate crisis has exacerbated the extreme rainfall."

The World Weather Attribution initiative (WWA) has once again achieved its aim of using “real-time analysis” to draw attention to the issue: on its website, the institute says its goal is to “analyse and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events." Frederike Otto, who works on attribution studies for the WWA, says these reports help to underscore the urgent need for climate action. They transform climate change from an “abstract threat into a concrete one."

In the immediate aftermath of a weather-related disaster, teams of researchers rush to put together attribution studies – “so that they are ready within the same news cycle," as the New York Times reported. However, these attribution studies do not meet normal scientific standards, as they are published without going through the peer-review process that would be undertaken before publication in a specialist scientific journal. And that creates problems.

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