MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan -- Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees are returning to their homeland voluntarily after spending years, sometimes decades in Pakistan.
One of these former refugees is Haji Habibullah, 56, who returned to Afghanistan in 2014 after spending more than 30 years in Karachi.
Habibullah said he fled to Karachi because of infighting among various warring mujahideen groups and then Taliban atrocities in Afghanistan.
Standing outside his house near Mazar-i-Sharif, Habibullah said he was satisfied with the security and economic situation in Afghanistan.
"A large number of refugees from Pakistan ... are coming back to Afghanistan for good," he told Salaam Times.
Rise in voluntary repatriation
The voluntary repatriation of Afghans has increased in recent years, according to Afghan government officials and refugee leaders in Pakistan.
Improvements in the Afghan security and economic situation are encouraging many Afghan refugees to come back, Hafiz Ahmad Miakhil, spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, said.
In 2015, more than 3m Afghan refugees returned from Pakistan and other countries, Miakhil told Salaam Times.
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, about 6m refugees have returned to Afghanistan from various countries, mainly from Pakistan, he said.
Many Afghan refugees have voluntarily returned to their country under the "Khapal Watan, Gul Watan" (Our beautiful homeland) campaign launched by the Afghan Embassy in Pakistan, Peshawar-based journalist Aqeel Yousafzai said.
"A large number of refugees from Peshawar have registered themselves with the Afghan embassy and consulate in Peshawar to go back, while some of them have already returned by crossing at the Torkham border check-point," he told Salaam Times.
Afghan plans for returning refugees
Afghanistan has taken several initiatives for the resettlement of returning refugees.
In 2005, the government introduced a plan to distribute land to refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Moreover, the Afghan government has built 62 residential towns in 29 provinces for refugees returning to their homeland, Miakhil said.
"The government is assisting the returnees to build their houses, providing education and health facilities, and finding jobs for them," he said.
In April, President Ashraf Ghani directed the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) to take necessary measures for protecting deserving refugee families and for distributing land to them in co-operation with the relevant provincial governors.
Refugees in Pakistan
About 1.5m registered and 1m unregistered Afghan refugees are residing in Pakistan, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
At a recent meeting in Murree, near Islamabad, representatives from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UNHCR emphasised their commitment to empowering Afghan refugees in Pakistan and to working to enable the refugees' voluntary repatriation and sustainable reintegration in Afghanistan.
Pakistani Minister of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) Abdul Qadir Baloch, Afghan Minister of Refugees and Repatriation Sayed Hussain Alami Balkhi, UNHCR Representative in Pakistan Indrika Ratwatte and UNHCR Representative in Afghanistan Maya Ameratunga attended the July 19 meeting.
Participants called on the international community to support efforts at ending Afghanistan's long history of refugees and displacement.
The three parties agreed during the meeting to extend the stay in Pakistan of registered Afghan refugees through the end of 2016
'Now it is time to return, build our own country'
Likewise, in a grand meeting of elders and representatives of Afghan refugees living in various parts of Pakistan, most participants agreed that the community was ready to return to Afghanistan.
Baloch, Balkhi and Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal attended the July 20 Islamabad meeting.
"You belong to Afghanistan," Zakhilwal told the participants. "Come back and claim your homes and livelihoods. Your return will also bring peace to the land."
Afghan refugees living in Pakistan were greatly satisfied with the Afghan government's performance, Sher Jan, an Afghan refugee leader in Quetta who attended the meeting, said.
"The Taliban groups have been weakened and peace is returning there," he told Salaam Times.
"Pakistan has hosted us for more than 35 years," he said. "Now it is time to build our country."