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"Every beardy man is not a terrorist"

Rafiullah Hanif was born an Afghan refugee in Pakistan. With tensions rising in his host country, he faces the prospect of forced repatriation to a homeland still in conflict.

 

Curious and a little amused by the spectacle of one of their friends being interviewed, several young men insisted on crowding into the front room of Rafiullah’s tiny mud-brick family home. Journalists don’t come to these parts very often.

At 22 years old, born a refugee, Rafiullah Haneef is articulate but shy. The presence of an audience probably didn’t help with his nerves, although he was too polite to say so.

"There are a lot of Afghans living here, so we feel like we're in our own home, in our own country," he told Al Jazeera.

At the end of a dusty, potholed road, 25 kilometres south of Peshawar, Shamshato was one of several refugee camps established in Pakistan during the 1980s following the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan. Rafiullah’s parents were among a vast number of Afghans who fled across the border to seek shelter.

 

 

Over time, most Afghans moved from the camps into the cities, but Shamshato remains a home to tens of thousands of some of the poorest refugees.

According to the Pakistani government, there are still almost three million Afghans living in Pakistan.

"When we migrated here, we were considering Pakistan our second home, but we’re facing a lot of problems." Rafiullah’s friends, watching from behind the camera, nodded in agreement.

He talked of daily, sometimes brutal, harassment by the police, restrictions on movement and employment discrimination.

Rafiullah is one of the very few in the camp that have been able to access higher education, studying a combination of computer science and geology at the University of Peshawar. Despite this, as a refugee, his future prospects remain bleak.

"There is no chance for us of even an internship or a job, so we should go to Afghanistan where it might be possible," he said.

Afghanistan is still a conflict zone, making it dangerous for refugees to return. Many have nothing to return to either. Rethinking his previous answer, Rafiullah changed his mind. “We don't even have a house there ... so, actually, it's impossible to go back."

His dilemma reflects the confusion and uncertainty many Afghans in Pakistan face. Soon, however, they may have no choice.

Pakistan is refusing to renew the refugee status of Afghans beyond 2016, which could mean mass repatriation. The government says their continued presence is having a major impact on security and the economy.

The UNHCR’s representative in Pakistan, Indrika Ratwatte, said the country is receiving little help from the international community.

"Given competing humanitarian crises - Syria, Iraq, and now the movement in Europe - host countries like Pakistan, who’ve been having refugees for decades, feel very marginalised and out of that discussion and out of the resources," he told Al Jazeera.

Some refugees have already been forced across the border, and aid workers say they’re facing dire conditions and deadly consequences.

In Shamshato, refugee leaders are now discussing plans to shift back to Afghanistan before they too are forced back.

Rafiullah, who was born in the camp, said he still wishes his host country well.

"We want good relations with Pakistan, and we want peace for both countries."

About the Author

Hassan Ghani

Hassan Ghani is a producer and reporter with Al Jazeera.