ISLAMABAD -- The number of Afghan refugees departing Pakistan for their homeland is expected to fall this year, United Nations officials said Thursday (June 8), after a record number of repatriations in 2016 sparked fears of a humanitarian crisis.
Some 32,000 registered refugees have returned from Pakistan since April 3, when repatriations for 2017 began after the end of winter, the UN said.
A record 370,000 Afghans left Pakistan last year. Many of them were Pakistani-born children or even grandchildren of Afghans who fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980s.
The number of Afghan returnees was 55,000 in 2015.
The exodus was compounded by a hardening of Pakistani attitudes towards Afghans over accusations the community was responsible for harbouring militants and criminals, observers said.
Many factors decrease rate of return
But what appears to be an improving environment in Pakistan, coupled with perceptions the Afghan government has failed to uphold pledges of assistance towards returnees, has now slowed the rate of return.
"The environment in Pakistan is very different today from this time last year. There were more palpable push factors in Pakistan for Afghans to return home last summer," said Dan McNorton, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In February, Pakistan announced a new policy for the management of Afghan refugees that included the registration of undocumented Afghans and enactment of a new refugee law and a new visa regime for Afghans.
Such measures in turn have encouraged Afghans to continue living in Pakistan rather than risk leaving for Afghanistan where fighting rages among the government, the Taliban and "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) militants.
Security in Kabul, where many returnees seek refuge, has deteriorated in the last week, as anger grows after a massive bomb in the city's diplomatic quarter killed more than 150 people.
Assistance packages from UNHCR also have been scaled back to $200 per person, officials said. Last year they had been increased to $400, which observers said encouraged the flood of returnees.
Millions remain in Pakistan
Some 4.2 million Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan voluntarily under the UNHCR-funded Voluntary Repatriation programme since 2002.
But UNHCR and Pakistani officials say about 1.34 million registered refugees still live in Pakistan. Estimates say there are a further half million undocumented refugees in the country.
A degree of fatigue has formed in Pakistan after 37 continuous years of hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world, said Indrika Ratwatte, the UNHCR country representative for Pakistan.
However, Human Rights Watch has been scathing about Pakistan's "coercive" approach towards repatriation in the past, accusing the government of arbitrary detentions and other violations.