'Not Even Dogs Live Like This' - Afghan Refugees Return Home To Find Squalid Conditions

Standing in a battered tent flanked by mud and human waste, Sahibuddin Khan and his family of five are among the thousands of returning Afghan refugees seeking food and shelter in crowded, ramshackle camps that have sprung up on the outskirts of Kabul.

An unprecedented number of Afghans are flooding back into their war-torn homeland, many of them forcibly evicted from neighboring Pakistan and Iran but also from Europe. The new wave of returnees joins the more than 1 million people already displaced by war inside the country, exacerbating an already urgent humanitarian crisis.

The returnees are coming 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. The Afghan government, which had already been struggling to maintain basic living standards for its people, is failing to cope with the massive influx.

"We are in our own country, but not even dogs live like this," says Khan, who recently returned with his family from Pakistan. They live in a camp teeming with more than 450 returnee families, many of them left to fend for themselves, fighting against the elements and on a constant quest for food. The camp has no running water, no electricity, and disease is rampant.

For Khan, the dire conditions took their toll last month when two of his six children, ages 2 and 4, succumbed to illness and died. "When there was heavy snow recently, I lost my own children," says Khan, who has lived in the camp, located on the eastern outskirts of Kabul, for the past two months. "We live in a tent and there's no firewood or food."

Last year, Khan and his family were living in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, close to the Afghan border, a place he had called home for nearly two decades.

Khan, who ran his own grocery shop in Quetta, says his family lived in relative security and comfort. But he says their lives were upended after Pakistani authorities – as part of an anti-Afghan backlash -- shut down his shop and raided their home, located in a predominately Afghan neighborhood of the city. After months of threats and police abuse, the Khan family finally packed up their household possessions and returned to their homeland.

Now the Khans find themselves destitute in their own country.

Hounded Out Of Pakistan

Many Afghans returning to their homeland cannot go back to their former homes due to insecurity or land-grabbing, leaving them reliant on the government for housing or land.

"We never thought it would be like this," Khan says. "We expected help to restart our lives."

For years, Islamabad had urged Afghan refugees to return home, with little political will behind the request. But that was before the massacre of more than 150 people, the vast majority of them students, at a Peshawar school in December 2014. Many returning refugees said they were made scapegoats for the attack, which was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.

Last year, the Pakistani government ordered all Afghan migrants and refugees to leave the country. Authorities began raiding their homes and shops. Returnees like Khan claim they were routinely harassed by police, arbitrarily arrested, or had their leases canceled.

In the second half of 2016, Pakistan evicted nearly 365,000 of the country's 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, as well as just over 200,000 of the estimated 1 million undocumented Afghans living in Pakistan, according to the New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW). At its peak in the 1980s, Pakistan sheltered an estimated 5 million Afghan refugees as Afghan guerrilla fighters battled invading Soviet troops.

"Any forced return of a registered refugee, whether it is directly done or indirectly done, is a breach of international law," says Gerry Simpson, a senior researcher and advocate in HRW's Refugee Rights Program. "It's clear that Pakistan breached international law in forcing back those registered refugees against their will."

In a strongly worded report released on February 13, HRW called the eviction of Afghan refugees from Pakistan the "world's largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times."

Islamabad claims 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.

Kabul's 'Reckless' Promises

Throughout the squalid Kabul camp where the Khans live, there is mounting anger and frustration over the lack of official help.

The Afghan government, heavily reliant on foreign aid, has promised refugees their own parcels of land but is struggling to deliver on that pledge. HRW's Simpson says not one refugee who returned to Afghanistan in 2016 has so far received any land.

"The process of distributing land to people has started in some provinces, but it takes time because it has to go through a legal process," says Hafiz Ahmad Miakhel, an adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations. He acknowledges the massive refugee crisis but says the government in Kabul is doing the best it can with the meager resources at its disposal.

HRW's Simpson says the Afghan government's "false promises" are "absolutely reckless," noting that Kabul's overly generous pledges of compensation helped to convince some refugees to return, only to find themselves homeless and displaced. "This is in line with a long-term challenge and failure to provide land to displaced Afghans," he says. "The reasons are corruption, inefficiency, and lack of funds."

The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says it gives out $400 in cash to registered returnees, while the International Organization for Migration says it targets its aid -- about $300 in cash per family, plus food or essential items, as needed -- to undocumented refugees, depending on their levels of vulnerability. In truth, however, many returnees fall through the cracks and receive little help.

One of them is 14-year-old Sameh, who left Pakistan with his family of seven almost three months ago and now lives in the same camp as the Khans.

"We have so many problems," he says. "We have no firewood or food. There's so much mud everywhere, and I have no shoes or clothes."