The sky and sandy roads bring thousands of distressed thoughts, despair in people's eyes, and hearts full of pain back to Afghanistan. An unknown route with clouds that seem to want to cry for those with no choice but to leave their homes and loved ones, forced to return from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

Some pass this route in groups, some alone, leaving everything they had behind.

Afghan families arrive from Pakistan with their belongings at the Spin Boldak border crossing in Kandahar. Photo: IOM/Mohammad Osman Azizi

For decades, Afghans have sought refuge in Pakistan, seeking safety and better economic prospects. However, in recent months, the conditions for Afghans living in Pakistan have become increasingly difficult, forcing many to return to an unknown fate back home in Afghanistan.

Since November 2023, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been forced to return after a decree by the Government of Pakistan on undocumented migrants went into effect. According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) data, an estimated 80 per cent of those affected are women and children.

As of 24 February 2024, nearly 525,000 Afghans have returned to Afghanistan primarily through the Torkham and Spin Boldak border crossings, with the vast majority being undocumented, according to IOM’s latest figures. Although the number of people crossing the border points is back to pre-crisis levels, IOM and its partners are preparing for another influx, expected in April 2024 according to media reports.

Most returnees had to abandon their belongings and savings in Pakistan. Many face extreme vulnerabilities and require immediate support at the border and in the areas they return to.

Afghan returnees at a temporary shelter before heading to the IOM Transit Centre in Kandahar. Photo: IOM/Mohammad Osman Azizi.

Among those returning is Simin*, a 28-year-old single mother who, along with her family, had no choice but to leave behind the life she had built in Pakistan. Having lost her husband, Simin had established a modest living cleaning houses to provide for her two young daughters.

"We fled to Pakistan after enduring years of conflict and instability in our country, hoping for a fresh start," Said Simin.

Simin's life took an unexpected turn when the Government of Pakistan announced a deadline for all undocumented migrants to return to their home country.

"I was forced to return to Afghanistan, but it brought unexpected challenges. I hesitated to return to my province because I was afraid of some family conflicts, which turned my homecoming into a journey filled with uncertainties and fears."

Afghan returnees wait at the IOM Transit Centre in Kandahar to register for assistance. Photo: IOM/Mohammad Osman Azizi

Alone with her two children, Simin faced myriad fears — of homelessness, lacking family support in Afghanistan, financial hardship, an uncertain future, and the unknown fate awaiting her and her daughters.

Many returning migrants find themselves worse off than when they left, having sold off their property and assets or taken loans to fund their journey.

In Kandahar, Karim*, who works with IOM, stands in solidarity with returnees like Simin, offering assistance in various forms. From reuniting them with their families to securing vital services like healthcare and education, Karim addresses their concerns and provides support in navigating their return.

An IOM caseworker assesses the needs of a returnee in the IOM Transit center in Nangarhar. Photo: IOM/Mina Nazari

IOM and border consortium partners are actively delivering vital aid at border crossing points between Pakistan and Afghanistan, addressing the needs returning Afghan migrants. As of February 2024, IOM has provided post-arrival humanitarian assistance to more than 418,000 Afghan migrants returning through Spin Boldak and Torkham border crossings.

Additionally, IOM is enhancing its response in Areas of Return to create conditions for the recovery and re-integration of returnees among their communities.

A returnee woman receives health consultation at the IOM Transit Center in Nangarhar. Photo: IOM/Mina Nazari

IOM will work with partners to implement this approach, using Community Resource Centers as one of the means for providing integrated services and referrals to vulnerable groups.

Vulnerable returnees like Simin, are being assessed to receive packages of assistance that would ensure they can recover and reintegrate into the communities they return to.

To date, IOM has identified 1,710 vulnerable returnees with prior business experience in Nangarhar and Kandahar to receive livelihood opportunities and will be matched with businesses supported by IOM's employment retention. This work will continue in areas of high return to achieve longer-term solutions for those communities.

IOM's post-arrival humanitarian assistance at the border and activities in the areas of return are supported by The European Union's Directorate-General for International Partnerships (DG-INTPA) and European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), The US State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), The UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), Switzerland's State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), The Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS), Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Global Affairs Canada (GAC), KfW Development Bank, and Netherlands' Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Trade.


*Names have been changed, and none of the photographs used here correspond to the persons featured to protect the identities of the returnees and IOM staff.

This story was written by IOM Afghanistan Media and Communications Unit.

For more information, please contact: Avand Azeez Agha –