PESHAWAR, Pakistan/TORKHAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan immigrants ordered out of Pakistan in what officials say is a bid to root out militants are, some analysts say, scapegoats being used to distract attention from the authorities’ failure to end violence.
Thousands of Afghans unnerved by threats of arrest and growing hostility towards them have flocked out of Pakistan back home, leaving behind boarded-up shops, houses and restaurants.
Within hours of a Dec. 16 attack on a school in the city of Peshawar in which more than 150 people were killed, officials pointed the finger at Afghanistan and vowed to crack down on illegal immigrants whom they say furnish a cover for militants.
Thousands of Afghans have since left, with long queues of cars loaded with belongings snaking through the Khyber Pass up to the border. Many more are packing their bags in Peshawar and preparing to leave.
Shahkirullah Sabawoon, an Afghan clothes merchant in Peshawar, described a grim atmosphere as he prepared to leave.
“Pakistan is our second home and we have invested billions of rupees in different businesses but police ... are asking us to shut our businesses and leave the country,” he said.
He said many in the community were too afraid to visit the market and check their shops for fear of being arrested.
“We have made up our minds to leave Pakistan and move our businesses to Afghanistan but it’s not an easy task,” he said.
Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director at the International Crisis Group, said the authorities were using Afghan refugees as a scapegoat, even though it is possible that some Taliban might surreptitiously mingle in Afghan refugee communities.
“It is so easy to exploit them. They have no legal framework to protect them,” she said. “Targeting Afghan refugees is a diversion.”
There are more than three million Afghans living in Pakistan, many of whom migrated in the 1970-80s during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Later, thousands followed after the hardline Taliban came to power.
Although some have proper registration papers, many are undocumented, making them vulnerable to police intimidation.
After decades in Pakistan, many have lost contact with relatives in Afghanistan, making their return even more worrying as Taliban militants step up their campaign following the withdrawal of most U.S.-led troops in December.
The International Organisation for Migration said more than 22,000 undocumented Afghans flocked across the border at Torkham in January, more than twice the figure for the whole of 2014.
Almost 1,500 others were deported in the same month, double the number of deportees in December.
Pakistani officials say they only target those who have no proper papers or are involved in crime.
“During the crackdown, police have even recovered illegal weapons from unregistered Afghans,” said Mushtaq Ahmad Ghani, a Pakistani provincial government minister. “Some of them were involved in crime and terrorism.”
Ajmal Khan, 38, was seven years old when his parents moved to Pakistan to flee Soviet invaders. He is now a father of six and owns a restaurant in Peshawar which he sees as home.
He is anxious about what awaits him when he gets back to his home town in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Half his family have already gone.
“I love Peshawar ... It has given us shelter for these long years,” he said, adding that a court had ordered his deportation even though he had valid paperwork.
“As soon as I sell the restaurant, I will leave Pakistan with the rest of my family.”
Additional reporting and writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Robert Birsel