Every day, hundreds of Afghan refugees arrive at the bus tops of Kabul and other Afghan cities from Pakistan, where most have lived for years, if not decades, in teeming camps. This year, the hundreds have swelled to the tens of thousands. They arrive clutching their meager possessions, with small children in tow. Some fled Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s; others sought sanctuary in Pakistan when the Taliban fundamentalist regime seized power in 1996.
Publicly, the Pakistani government insists that there is no official decree ordering refugees to leave Pakistan. But in interviews this year, both with The Washington Post and other media outlets, refugees spoke of being intimidated and harassed by Pakistani police and officials and pressured to leave the country. Others had to leave because Pakistani officials refused to extend their identity cards, threatened them with jail or demanded bribes for them to remain in Pakistan. Virtually all said they have returned to their homeland with a sense of fear and foreboding.
The security situation is deteriorating in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties are at record levels.
"First we had to leave here because of war. Now we are coming back to war and bombs," Rahim Khan, 60, told Reuters recently after he returned, 28 years after having fled to Pakistan. He was interviewed at a refugee center near Kabul where his Pakistan-born grandchildren were being taught the dangers of mines and roadside bombs.
By some accounts, as many 130,000 Afghans have returned from Pakistan since January, four times as many as last year. Aid workers and Afghan officials expect those numbers to rise. In recent weeks, relations between Kabul and Islamabad have deteriorated. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who initially tried to improve relations with his neighbor, has publicly blamed Pakistan for rising violence by the Taliban, which has long received support from Pakistan's intelligence agency.
On Dec. 31, the identity cards of some 1.5 million registered refugees in Pakistan expires. If the two countries fail to reach an agreement to extend the cards, Afghanistan could face a flood of returning refugees. Meanwhile, the future of 1 million more unregistered Afghans in Pakistan is also in doubt.
Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has said he wants all refugees repatriated, according to Reuters.
"The cards will not be extended," he said. "They expire at the end of this year."
Many of the new arrivals will likely join the hundreds of thousands of Afghans displaced by war inside the country. The numbers have reached levels unprecedented since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001. About 3 percent of the population has been driven by conflict to other parts of the country. Last year, more than 180,000 people were dislodged from their homes, more than in any single year since the war began, U.N. refugee officials said. The number is likely to equal or surpass that this year, they added.
At Kabul's main bus station, the numbers of Afghans fleeing the country is growing. Two months ago, between 15 and 20 buses, each carrying as many as 55 passengers, set off for the Iranian border every day. That number has jumped to 70 to 80 buses daily, according to Mohammad Nassir, a manager in the station.
"The young generation is leaving the country," Nassir told NBC News. "I see families saying goodbye to their loved ones for the last time and it breaks my heart."
As European countries appear poised to accept far more refugees than previously anticipated, many more Afghans are trying to reach Europe, willing to walk hundreds of miles or risk drownings at sea. Afghans are the third-largest group of asylum seekers in Europe, after Syrians and Eritreans, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
And many of the refugees forced to leave Pakistan could soon add to the rolls of asylum seekers in Europe.
Ahmad Faheem, who runs UNHCR's Kabul reception center, told Reuters that some of those leaving were among 3.5 million former refugees who returned from Pakistan soon after the U.S.-led intervention ousted the Taliban in 2001. At the time, they had hope for the future. No longer.
"Day by day the security situation is getting worse," said Faheem, who returned from Pakistan in 2002. "They have come here to try to settle, but if there is no security and no work, they leave again."