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Fleeing Afghan Hazaras face uncertain future in Pakistan

Quetta, Pakistan – When the Taliban came to capture the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Ferozan knew that her life in the country was over and that she would have to flee her home with her husband and two young children.

“There was war again, and I was very afraid,” she says. “We decided to take the path of escape and came here.”

Like thousands of others, Ferozan – who like many Afghans goes by only one name – fled to the eastern neighbouring country, Pakistan. They now face an uncertain future, in a country where government officials say they are unable to take any more refugees and have begun to deport some new arrivals.

“The Balochistan government and the federal government have already decided that there are already three to four million Afghan refugees present in Pakistan,” said Liaquat Shahwani, a spokesman for the provincial government in Balochistan, where most new Afghan refugees have arrived.

“We cannot cope with that burden, we cannot carry it, why should more new people come? There are other neighbouring countries, they can go there.”

Provincial official Jummadad Khan Mandhokhail told Al Jazeera that at least 250 new Afghan refugees had already been deported since the fresh arrival of people began following the fall of the Afghan government on August 15.

“We have returned them because the Pakistan government has not at this time made any camps to facilitate Afghan refugees,” said Shahwani. “Our decision is that we will not allow them right now.”

Ferozan, left, says she just wants her ordeal to be over so that her children can resume their education and work towards a better life [Saadullah Akhtar/Al Jazeera]

Nowhere to go

A member of the Hazara ethnicity, the third-largest by population in Afghanistan, Ferozan and her family felt they would be under greater threat under the Taliban, which was accused of carrying out atrocities against Hazaras during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.

The armed group, which seized Mazar-i-Sharif on August 14 and took complete control of the capital Kabul a day later, had targeted members of the Hazara ethnicity, most of whom are Shia Muslims, in a series of targeted massacres and bombings for decades.

In August, human rights organisation Amnesty International found evidence that Taliban fighters had killed nine Hazara men after taking control of Ghazni province in July.

The ISIL (ISIS) armed group has also targeted ethnic Hazaras in Afghanistan in major bombings in recent years.

Since the fall of the Afghan government last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 9,290 new refugees have arrived in Pakistan, more than 90 percent of them through the southern border crossing between the Afghan town of Spin Boldak and the Pakistani town of Chaman.

Of those who have arrived, more than 30 percent are estimated to be of the Hazara ethnicity, UNCHR says.

“I have become homeless and come here,” says Ferozan. “My demand of the government is that they must help us and take us somewhere. We are staying in a mosque, we have no clothes, no blankets and nothing else either.”

Ferozan and more than 100 other refugees were staying at the Rizvia mosque in Quetta, the provincial capital of Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, located about 100km (62 miles) from the border crossing at Chaman.

Dozens of families slept on carpets laid across the floor of the main prayer hall at the mosque, with a small tent partition dividing the space between men and women. As Ferozan and other refugees spoke of their experiences crossing the border, several young children played around them.

“It is my plea to the government to help us, hold the hands of us poor people. For how long will we wander like this, how long will we face war?” asks Ferozan.

For Zakia, 40, another new refugee, the journey to Pakistan was arduous, and in the confusion and crush of bodies at the border – which was controlled by the Taliban – she says she lost contact with her 45-year-old brother.

Zakia, first on the right, whose family hails from the Afghan capital Kabul, says people there were ‘terrified’ when the Taliban took control of the city [Saadullah Akhtar/Al Jazeera]

“When I was able to get through [the border crossing], my brother was left behind,” she says. “When that happened, I spent one night in Chaman [on the Pakistani side of the border], I slept on the roof of a shop because there was no space and no rooms.”

After hours of waiting in the blazing summer sun, Zakia and her family of seven were forced to leave Chaman and seek shelter in Quetta, the nearest main city.

Zakia, whose family hails from the Afghan capital Kabul, says people there were “terrified” when the Taliban took control of the city.

“I have come for the sake of my children,” she says. “I have come for their education, because during the Taliban era, there will not be good education that they are able to study and get [white-collar] jobs.”

Zakia’s husband Safiullah, 43, was wounded in an attack on a Shia mosque in Kabul several years ago, and he is unable to walk.

“Coming here, I have nothing,” he says. “No income, no dishes, no home and the rents here are so high and I have no rent. I don’t even have a floor.”

Muhammad Ali Muhammadi, 28, was a university lecturer in Mazar-i-Sharif before he fled to Pakistan.

“We had two dangers to us: one was to our lives, and the other was [the danger] of unemployment. So there was no way for us to remain there any longer,” he says.

“I was a child when the Taliban first came to power [in 1996]. The incidents we saw in that era … they were very bad. I did not want those black days that I had seen to be seen by my children.”

Muhammadi said while the new Taliban government had promised inclusion and basic rights for all, he was dubious of those claims.

“Who wants to leave their own country? I want to go back there. But the government there currently, we have no trust in them, we don’t know when they will start committing injustices on us again.”

Pakistan currently hosts more than 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, according to UNHCR data, with another two million estimated to be living in the country without formal documentation [Saadullah Akhtar/Al Jazeera]

Pakistan will ‘not accept any more refugees’

Pakistan currently hosts more than 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, according to UNHCR data, with another two million estimated to be living in the country without formal documentation.

These include refugees who have lived in the country for more than 30 years, fleeing first the Soviet invasion and ensuing war in 1979, the civil war that followed and then the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.

Pakistan has facilitated international evacuations from Afghanistan during the crisis, with government officials estimating that at least 13,000 individuals – mostly third-country citizens from the US, Europe and elsewhere – have travelled through Pakistan by air or by road in order to reach safety.

Officials, however, say the country will not accept any new refugees.

“Pakistan is in no condition right now to accept any more refugees,” said Moeed Yusuf, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s national security adviser, at a press briefing last week.

“We will do whatever we can for our Afghan brothers and sisters, but the world has to take this responsibility to ensure that we prevent a humanitarian crisis.”

Yusuf said the international community should aid in setting up “safe zones” within Afghanistan for those displaced by the conflict.

Provincial officials in Pakistan’s Balochistan province echoed that sentiment, saying that no new refugee camps were being set up on the Pakistani side of the border.

“In case of any emergency, if a camp has to be established, the bordering districts on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border … on the Afghan side camps should be established,” said Shahwani, the provincial government spokesman.

“The Balochistan government will do what we can within our capacity, we will try and facilitate them.”

Resettlement in third countries

Most new refugees Al Jazeera spoke to said they were cognisant of the difficulties in living in Pakistan, and that they were seeking resettlement in a third country.

“Refugees cannot be accommodated here because Pakistan already has a lot of immigrants. We are looking for a home, but cannot find one,” says Sakina, 25, another refugee who was living at the Rizvia mosque.

“We are requesting the United Nations to take us to some developed country where we can live peacefully with our children.”

Muhammad Zia, a 50-year-old shopkeeper from Kabul, says it would be impossible to return to Afghanistan, and that world powers should help refugees resettle elsewhere.

“We have young children, and there is no work [in Afghanistan],” he said. “Our request is from international countries and embassies, that those countries should give us citizenship and help.”

Ferozan says she just wants her ordeal to be over so that her children can resume their education and work towards a better life.

“Our request of this government is that whatever they do and however they do it, just release us from this suffering,” she says. “Take us to a different country and hold our hands.”

Sakina, the young woman from Mazar-i-Sharif, says her mother told her stories of life under the previous Taliban regime, when a strict interpretation of Islamic law was imposed on the country and women were all but barred from public life.

“The things the Taliban say, the promises they make, they absolutely do not act on them,” she says. “That’s why we don’t trust them.”

“I don’t want to see the difficulties in my youth that my mother saw in her life.”

With additional reporting by Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent Asad Hashim in Islamabad

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