Pakistan has resumed its repatriation of Afghan refugees under a controversial program by the United Nations, a UN official said.
The UN’s voluntary repatriation program, which oversaw the return of some 380,000 registered refugees along with an estimated 250,000 unregistered refugees from Pakistan in 2016, was halted in December for a routine winter break.
Human rights groups say the exodus is coerced, accusing Pakistan of forcing hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees back to their homeland, which is still wracked by violence and poverty.
Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told RFE/RL that the program restarted on April 3.
Khan said some 570 Afghan refugees based in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province returned to Afghanistan on April 3, with 15 refugees returning from the Chaman border crossing and the rest from Torkham crossing.
Khan added that "so far some 24,000 refugees have expressed an intention to return in April and May."
She also confirmed that UNHCR had cut its cash grant for returnees from $400 to $200 because of a shortage in funding.
The UN doubled the grant in 2016 and said it was one of the reasons for the surge of Afghan returnees last year.
Coercion, Threats, And Abuse
But Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a February report that Pakistan’s use of coercion, threats, and abuse had contributed to the mass repatriation, and accused the UN of complicity.
In a strongly-worded report, HRW said the "exodus amounts to the world's largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times."
“Any forced return of a registered refugee, whether it is directly done or indirectly done, is a breach of international law,” Gerry Simpson, a senior researcher and advocate in HRW’s Refugee Rights Program, told RFE/RL in February. “It’s clear that Pakistan breached international law in forcing back those registered refugees against their will.”
Khan rejected that accusation, saying that UNHCR “facilitated the return of those registered Afghan refugees who approached us to return.”
Pakistan cited security concerns for seeking Afghan refugees' return to their homeland, particularly after several brutal attacks by militants in Pakistan's northwest, which the government linked to insurgents hiding in neighboring Afghanistan.
Islamabad has also claimed that the refugees who have left have done so voluntarily, and it has extended its deadline for all refugees to return to the end of 2017. Human rights groups say the deadline should be extended to 2019, at least.
Last year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told refugees in Pakistan to come home, promising them shelter, land, and job opportunities.
Ghani has been criticized for his remarks from rights groups which say the government is unable to fulfil those promises.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said the "large influx" of returning refugees was already severely testing the country's ability to absorb so many displaced people.
In a report issued in January, the IMF said more than 700,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan last year, mainly from Pakistan, but also from Iran, Europe, and elsewhere.
"This is seriously aggravating the government's capacity to absorb refugees in an already difficult environment of high unemployment and internally displaced people after decades of conflict," it said.
At its peak in the 1980s Pakistan sheltered an estimated 5 million Afghan refugees as Afghan guerrilla fighters battled invading Soviet troops.
Some 4.2 million Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan voluntarily under the UNHCR program since 2002. An estimated 1.3 million registered refugees still live in Pakistan.
The wave of returnees joins the more than 1 million people already displaced by war inside the country, exacerbating an already urgent humanitarian crisis.
Many returnees have come back to a country where extreme poverty is rife, security is shaky, and where the Taliban has gained more territory than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.