Pakistan has been home to one of the largest protracted refugee populations in the world– where more than 5 million Afghan refugees have been living in Pakistan since 1979 (Kucher, 2005). Voluntary repatriation has been perceived as the most feasible and durable solution by the government of Pakistan and international organizations. Thus voluntary repatriation to return home is regarded as a basic human right (Stigter, 2006). Since the 1980s, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan has provided shelter to millions of Afghan refugees (UNHCR, 1997). Consequently, a majority of the Afghan refugees were either born in Pakistan or they had spent there most of their life (Sana, 2016).
Since the 1980s, about six million people from Afghanistan fled to different Asian and European countries to the sought refuge (Hiegemann, 2012). Majority of the refugees fled to the neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran where the refugees began to settle in the camps established with the support of UNHCR (Alam, 2012). Hostility among Pakistani people began to increase as the country’s frontier began to experience large numbers of refugees (UNHCR, 2013). Moreover, the first repatriation started in 1992, when Taliban overthrew the Soviets’ backed government in Kabul. However, the influx of refugees to Pakistan significantly increased during the following years because of the prevailing violence and instability (Vincent and Refslund, 2001).
Recent studies indicate that large-scale refugee populations have the potential to affect the economic, social, and political life of host communities in many ways (UNHCR, 1998). Presently, the government of Pakistan is confronting the issue of repatriation of Afghan refugees, whereas, the political instability, economic turmoil, and continued violence have discouraged the Afghan refugees to return to their home country (Christensen, 1989, Sadat, 2008).
In 2002, UNHCR assisted the government of Pakistan to initiate one of the largest repatriation of Afghan refugees (Schmeidl, 2008). However, during the protracted conflict in Afghanistan, the majority of the Afghans have been born in Pakistan and integrated into society and Pakistan has been confronting several waves of refugees leaving and returning to Afghanistan, making it difficult for the government and nongovernmental organizations to provide an accurate estimate of refugees (HRCP, 2009).
Since 2002, more than 5 million refugees have been assisted by UNHCR in the repatriation and reintegration process. However, repatriation has slowed down since 2008 but got momentum after 2012 (UNHCR, 2013). In the current scenario, about 60% of the refugees are reluctant to return voluntarily to their home country primarily because of lack of livelihood opportunities, access to basic services and security threats (Safron, 2016). According to United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees, the increase in UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation and reintegration cash grant has significantly contributed to the increase in a number of people opting to return. Voluntary repatriation of refugees to their country of origin is believed to be the most durable and feasible solution and thus it is considered as the basic human right of the refugees to return voluntarily to their home country (Stigter, 2006).
On the one hand, the decline in foreign aid, domestic challenges, economic crisis and the growing threat of terrorism together with the refugee crisis are the main concerns for Pakistan. While, on the other hand, the absorptive capacity of Afghanistan has significantly weakened due to decades of warfare and political turmoil. The provision of livelihood opportunities, education and health services are still big challenges for the government of Afghanistan (Khan, 2014).
Repatriation is having a strong relationship with the improvement in the livelihood opportunities and security situation in home country (UNHCR, 2004). There are several factors both in home country as well as in host country, which the refugees consider to return or to stay. Among them the most important are economic motivations and livelihood opportunities, law and order situation in the country of origin, and socio-cultural factors (Kuschminder & Dora, 2009). Thus a conducive and peaceful environment in Afghanistan is pre-requisite for repatriation and sustainable re-integration of Afghan refugees in their home country. According to UNHCR’s report on Issues Faced by Afghan Refugees during Repatriation, that majority of the refugees want to return but they are reluctant due to the prevailing security conditions in Afghanistan.
Similarly, Khan (2014) argued that the provision of basic social services both in home and host countries significantly affects the decisions of refugees to stay or to return. More importantly, there is enough empirical data to suggest that refugees with livelihood skills are more likely to repatriate than those with no skills (UNHCR, 2012). It has been found that more than 51% of the refugees in Pakistan are less than 18 years of age. Without education or skills training, these young refugees will find it hard to make a decent living in the host community (ibid).
Economic motivations are also the main decision-making factors leading Afghans to travel to Pakistan. Improvement in the economic conditions and livelihood opportunities in Afghanistan are one of the main determinants of smooth repatriation of refugees (UNHCR, 2009). Similarly, most of the refuges are engaged in casual labor in Pakistan and are using their networks and past experiences to avail the employment opportunities. Consequently, they are not able to avail those decent economic opportunities through which they can support their families and uplift their economic status (Majidi, 2009).
Around 5.7 million Afghan refugees have been assisted by UNHCR to return to their home country, and it is considered as one of the largest repatriation processes in the world (UNHCR, 2013). Evidence suggests that many refugees have been pressured to leave Pakistan despite the unsafe and unfavorable conditions in Afghanistan (Hiegemann, 2014). Subsequently, Some 60% of returnees encountering difficulties in reintegrating in their home communities and indicate that limited livelihood opportunities, lack of access to basic services and security are the main reasons for not voluntarily returning to Afghanistan (UNHCR, 2012).