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Even if born and raised in Pakistan, Afghan refugees are deported to Afghanistan, a land they've never known

Even if born and raised in Pakistan, Afghan refugees are deported to Afghanistan, a land they've never known
This necklace in the shape of Afghanistan is the only physical reminder Rehmat keeps of his family's homeland. (Emma Loy / International Reporting Program)

This year Rehmat was deported to a country he had never known. Weary of hiding from authorities after living in Turkey illegally for more than two years, he turned himself in to police and was shipped off to Afghanistan.

When he landed at the airport in Kabul, a long-lost uncle greeted him. "We had never seen each other before, but he knew I was coming," Rehmat said. "He was holding up a sign with my name on it."

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Rehmat, 22, was born and raised in Pakistan. So was his father. Still, neither is considered a citizen under Pakistani law, and their stateless status reflects the extraordinary challenges faced by Afghan refugees the world over. When it came time to deport Rehmat from Turkey, Pakistan would not accept him and he was sent to Afghanistan.

After he arrived in Kabul, Rehmat was at first happy to see a part of his family he had never met. But it wasn't long before he was reminded of why so many people want to leave Afghanistan. The night of Jan. 20, not long after Rehmat's arrival, Taliban militants attacked the Intercontinental Hotel, killing 22 people, including foreign nationals. Rehmat was staying with his uncle, whose home was a five-minute walk from the hotel.

"We heard the attack happening around midnight, and everyone in the neighborhood ran out of their homes," said Rehmat, reached by phone in Kabul. "We spent maybe 12 hours on the streets — I thank God I got out of there alive. My heart has gone stone cold from this life. It's like there is nowhere for me to go."

My heart has gone stone cold from this life. It’s like there is nowhere for me to go.


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Seven out of 10 Afghan refugees who return home are forced to flee again due to violence, a new survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre found, echoing reports by human rights groups that are asking the European Union to stop returning the refugees to a country that is still in the throes of war.

According to a United Nations tally, 3,538 Afghans were killed and 7,015 injured in 2017, down 9% from 2016, which was the deadliest such period for Afghan civilians since 2009.

As violence in Afghanistan picks up, many Afghans are looking for a way out of the country, but have few options left. Rehmat asked that his full name not be used because he intends to flee to Europe once more.

At least 2 million Afghans live in neighboring Pakistan, but even those born there have little legal protection. An estimated 1.4 million of those Afghans are registered with the government as refugees, and Pakistan has given them until June 30 to leave the country. The government has set such deadlines before — only to extend them — but it's unclear if it will grant yet another extension.

Pakistani officials increasingly blame the Afghan refugees for terrorist attacks in the country. "Pakistan says Afghans are terrorists. I have lots of friends who are harassed by police," Rehmat said. "They leave the country to go back to Afghanistan, even if it's a place that's more dangerous. Or some, if they have money, try to go to Europe."

Unsure when Pakistani authorities might order Afghans to leave, Rehmat quit his university in Islamabad, where he studied Islamic theology, and headed for Europe in 2016. His family borrowed $1,500 to pay a smuggler who helped him cross into Iran, then into Turkey.

Like many other Afghans, Rehmat hoped to apply for asylum upon reaching Europe, but the journey grew increasingly expensive and perilous.

One day the smuggler ordered Rehmat and the group he was traveling with to discard anything that could identify them and make it easier for police to deport them. So Rehmat threw away the only such document he had, a "proof of registration" card he and the other Afghan refugees registered with the U.N. are given by the Pakistani government.

The only thing he kept to remind him of home, he said, is a steel locket in the shape of Afghanistan, which he keeps around his neck at all times.

"People sometimes leave everything on their way here," he said. "You never know when you are going to die. I keep this so at least they would know, if something happens, this guy is Afghan."

In Istanbul, Rehmat found a job in a textile factory. After two months of work, though, he realized his Turkish boss was never going to pay him the salary he kept promising, and he quit. He tried twice to cross the border into Europe, paying smugglers thousands of dollars to be guided through forests into Bulgaria and Greece, but each time he was caught and sent back to Turkey.

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In Istanbul's Vefa district, not far from the iconic Blue Mosque, Rehmat joined hundreds of other Afghan refugees who worked in the recycling industry. Day and night, they made their way through the narrow warrens of the city, piling up cardboard, glass and plastic in giant burlap sacks they carted on a trolley. When it was filled, they returned to Vefa to have it weighed and sold to a Turkish middleman.

Around 330 pounds — a typical haul from a single run — pays about $13. Rehmat slowly collected a circle of distant relatives, some like him who had come from Pakistan, and others who had fled the war in Laghman, their family's home province in Afghanistan.

They brought with them stories of how dangerous life had become in Afghanistan. Qismatullah, Rehmat's cousin, entered Turkey from Afghanistan, via Pakistan and Iran, a year ago. It was his second trip west. He had lived in Norway for 12 years after entering the country illegally and was deported back to Afghanistan in 2015.

Qismatullah spoke some English, so when he returned to Afghanistan, he decided to enlist in the army. One day while on patrol, he said, a pickup truck appeared on the road and blocked their way. The men inside were waving the black flag of Islamic State

"A man came out of their truck, and yelled at me to get out," said Qismatullah, who goes by only one name. "They kicked me and asked to see a military ID card. They brought a pair of pliers and pulled out two fingernails.

"They said, 'Why are you working with the army?' I said 'This is my country, I can do what I want.'"

The men put a gun to his head and told him to quit the army.

"They had caught me on a road very close to the barracks, so I decided it was not safe and I deserted and went home to Laghman." Now back in Turkey, he's hoping to make his way back to Norway.

In Istanbul, he found his cousin Rehmat and the other Afghans were living a precarious life. Since Turkey signed a deal with the European Union in 2015 to halt the flow of migrants and refugees to Europe, Turkish authorities have made it increasingly difficult for the few Afghan men who still live in Vefa.

Each day, bulldozers demolish the abandoned buildings they live in, and the recycling business, once employing hundreds of migrants who worked directly with Turkish buyers, has gone bust.

Rehmat, Qismatullah found, lived in a three-story building whose walls had partially collapsed, replaced with heavy carpets the men scavenged from the trash.

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The Afghans are increasingly unwelcome in a country that already hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees.

"We cannot go to the hospital, we cannot go out at night anymore because we get mugged or stabbed by angry locals," Rehmat said in an interview before he was ejected from Turkey. "We live a life of fear here."

Turkey does not grant refugee status to Afghans, but it does allow them to register for government protection and residency until they can be resettled in other countries. According to the United Nations, 157,000 Afghans are so registered. But because resettlement often takes years, most Afghans don't register and instead hope to cross into Europe.

As Turkey works to cut such illegal migration, it has stepped up detentions of migrants, including Afghans, 44,127 of whom were detained in 2017.

Many no longer wait for the detention, deciding on voluntary deportation instead. Rehmat, weary of hiding, decided to turn himself in after he barely escaped a police raid one afternoon in December. Plainclothes officers arrived and told the Afghans to gather in one room.

"They said, 'We have some food for you,' so of course all of us came," Rehmat said. A dozen Afghan men gathered in the room, not thinking anything was amiss until the police brought out handcuffs.

"I don't know what happened — maybe they didn't have enough handcuffs or something — but when they were moving everyone into a van, one of the policemen told us to get the hell out, so we just ran," said Rehmat, who escaped with Qismatullah.

Nine of the men detained that day were deported within a week. Each signed a document saying they were "voluntarily returning" to Afghanistan, a practice Amnesty International has said is often illegal, because the detainees are usually not given legal representation that would help them file for a stay based on danger faced back home.

Rehmat now plans to return to Turkey, but first he will head to Pakistan to see his ailing father. For decades, Pakistan allowed Afghans to travel without a visa across the border, but not now.

After weeks of waiting and hundreds of dollars in bribes, Rehmat got a six-month visa for Pakistan.

"I just want to see my father and my siblings for a bit, and I plan to leave again," Rehmat said. "Afghanistan, I cannot go there, and there is no certain future for us here in Pakistan. I have to try to go to Europe again."

Farooq is a special correspondent.

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