Afghan families flee persecution in Pakistan after school attack

KABUL - Thousands of Afghan families are fleeing Pakistan to escape harassment after a deadly Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar last December, the head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Afghanistan said on Saturday.

More than 22,000 undocumented Afghans flocked across the border at Torkham in January, more than twice the figure for the whole of 2014, said Richard Danziger, the IOM's mission chief in Afghanistan.

Almost 1,500 others were deported ithe same month, double the number of deportees in December. "It all started with the attack on the school in Peshawar," Danziger told Reuters. "When something horrible happens, people start taking it out on foreigners." Taliban militants attacked a school in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar in December, killing more than 130 children and prompting Pakistan to step up operations against insurgent hideouts along the border with Afghanistan.

Cooperation between Afghan and Pakistani security forces has also improved since the attack and has led to the arrest of suspects in Afghanistan, where officials believe it was planned by the Pakistani Taliban.

However, Afghans living in Pakistan are reporting incidents of harassment such as raids on their homes and police coercion, the IOM and other officials said.

Most of the Afghan families settled in Pakistan decades earlier and have nowhere to go once they return, Danziger said. "Their lives are in Pakistan," he said, adding it was unclear how long they would remain in Afghanistan.

The flow of undocumented returnees increased steadily in January, from around 350 in the first week to 1,400 in the final week of the month.

Danziger said it was difficult to predict when the numbers of refugees would ease.

The unexpected arrival of thousands of people is pressuring Afghanistan's limited resources and only the most vulnerable are receiving assistance. "We are down to helping the most desperate there," Danziger said, adding that resources had been diverted from the Iranian border.

Families lucky enough to qualify for help receive medical care, food and temporary shelter, but the IOM says it needs another $1.6 million to cope with an additional 17,000 vulnerable returnees this year.

Most refugees are moving to nearby provinces including Kunar, the IOM said, where fighting between Afghan forces and Taliban militants has recently intensified.

Others are heading for Kabul, where resources for thousands of internally displaced people settled there are already seriously strained.