A hard winter: Afghan refugees return from Pakistan

Caught in the middle of political tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan are some two million Afghan refugees – registered and unregistered – who now face the option of either returning voluntarily or being deported from Pakistan.

And it couldn’t happen at a worse time.

Winter in Afghanistan can be bitterly cold. The country is also experiencing a spike in violence, with increased attacks from the Taliban and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighters, leading to peak levels of civilian casualties and internal displacement as people flee the fighting.

“I’m scared to come here because there is no security,” says Medina Ghassen, 16, an Afghan refugee who was born in Pakistan, as she waits for a doctor to inspect her mother’s injured foot at a UNHCR clinic at the Kabul deregistration centre.

Her family has decided to return to Afghanistan voluntarily and is now being removed from the refugee registry. They are also being given cash and medical help by the United Nations before finding a home in Afghanistan.

“[Pakistani authorities] wouldn’t let us stay there. They made the situation very hard,” Ghassen, whose family is originally from Logar province, south of Kabul, explains.

“I was going to school, and I don’t think I can go to school here. It’s very dangerous,” she adds.

The family says it is not sure where they will stay after leaving the UNHCR centre, which is bustling with thousands of people who arrived overnight.

There is already a chill in the air, and staff have been scrambling to get enough blankets and heaters to keep people warm overnight. The deregistration of the refugees – a process that can take around 30 minutes for each person or family, depending on the crowds and the needs of the individuals – starts moving at a brisk pace shortly after 7am.

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