Afghan refugees in Pakistan

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By Rustam Shah Mohmand

In the wake of the Taliban victory last August, it was presumed that Afghan refugees would begin to return to their country as soon as complete peace had been restored to the war shattered country. This expectation was premised on the assumption that the country would begin to take rapid strides towards political and economic stability. Many observers thought a conducive environment would soon be created for the refugees to plan their return journeys to their homeland.  

But that was not to be. Problems arose because the US was unwilling to acknowledge its defeat and accept the Taliban government’s legitimacy. This led to Washington refusing to release Afghan assets worth more than $9 billion. American leaders wanted to impose tough conditions before agreeing to the release of the Afghan government funds, which has led to a continuing stalemate. The impasse has generated widespread chaos and uncertainty about the viability of the new dispensation. Coupled with the prospect of a collapsing economy are a wave of deadly attacks mounted by Daesh, particularly in parts of Eastern Afghanistan and the capital, Kabul. 

As a consequence of the economic mess, unemployment, rising levels of poverty and grim warnings issued by the UN about an impending humanitarian catastrophe, all hopes for voluntary repatriation have now given way to despair and frustration. Afghan refugees are not in any mood to prepare themselves for departure to their ancestral villages. That would mean 1.4 million plus refugees staying on in Pakistan for an indefinite period of time—until conditions improve substantially.  

But Afghans living in Pakistan are deeply worried. Besides the 1.4 million registered refugees, there are estimated to be more than 600,000 undocumented Afghans living in the country. Some believe the number of unregistered refugees is as high as possibly one million. About 69 per cent of these refugees live in urban areas while 31 percent live in 54 designated camps. The UNHCR—the refugee agency continues to take care of the refugees living in the camps by providing water, electricity, education and health cover. 

In addition, there are other NGOs who take care of some of the needs of Afghans living in Pakistan. A number of initiatives have been launched to cater to the needs of refugees who are scattered all over the country but mainly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces. The southern port city of Karachi hosts about 300,000 Afghan refugees.  

Afghan refugees coming to Pakistan via Chaman border

What worries Afghan refugees is the changing attitude of government representatives towards them. They allege they are harassed in their movements from one place to another. Their movement within the country is restricted, they cannot open a bank account, do business or trading or engage in commercial activities in their own names. Even their children seeking higher education face obstacles. Their visits to Afghanistan have been severely curtailed because of the fencing of the border. In addition, it is now extremely difficult to get entry into Afghanistan and return to their homes in Pakistan. This has gravely affected their chances to do cross-border business. 

These hurdles have impacted their lives. Most of them live below the poverty line. There is no longer any focus on their myriad socio-economic problems. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan had promised in his election campaign in 2018 that he would grant citizenship to all Afghan refugees who have a clean criminal record. This did not happen once he came to power.

Any breakthrough in Afghanistan in terms of economic revival will be welcome news for hundreds of thousands of Afghans living in Pakistan– because that would mean releasing Afghan assets held in the US and the IMF and kickstart an economic revival that is long anticipated. There should be a renewed focus on persuading the international community to recognize these ground realities. 

Meanwhile, Pakistan should consider granting nationality to Afghans who have an unblemished record and who have lived here continuously for decades. There are many Afghans who were born in Pakistan and are now 40 years old, never having visited their country of origin. To shut the door on such Afghans is unfair and repudiates the principles of justice and the observance of a universal code that deals with the rights to asylum. 

When conditions are ripe and the environment is conducive, the bulk of Afghan refugees in Pakistan will choose to repatriate voluntarily. All efforts must be made to create that environment.  

(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)