Pakistan’s Uneasy Relation with Afghan Refugees

The latest efforts of the government in Islamabad to repatriate Afghan refugees show that
Pakistan’s refugee problem is deeply connected with the country’s response to terrorism and with international cooperation.

Pakistan today hosts about 1.5 million registered and some one million undocumented Afghan refugees, the largest protracted refugee population worldwide. In recent months, however, the country has intensified its efforts to send Afghans back to their home country.

The government argues that the security situation in neighboring Afghanistan has improved; hence there is no reason for both legal and illegal refugees to stay in Pakistan any longer. But the actual reason, analysts say, is the rise of militant attacks in Pakistan which Islamabad claims has its roots in Afghanistan.

The move to expel Afghan refugees from Pakistan gained momentum after the deadly attack on an army-run school in the northwestern city of Peshawar on December 16, 2014. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault, in which over 140 school students and staff were massacred.

Pakistani officials said the attack was plotted in Afghanistan and was executed with the help of
Afghans settled on Pakistani soil.

Many Afghans have been living in Pakistan for decades. The first generation of refugees came during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the early 1980s. Islamabad took them in as a goodwill gesture, and also for its geopolitical interests in its northern backyard.

Initially, these people lived in refugee camps across the northwestern region, but later many of them moved to the main urban areas, mostly in Peshawar, but also to as far as to the southern port city of Karachi. A number of Afghans today possess Pakistani national identity cards and run small businesses.

After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, scores of people fled the country and sought refuge abroad. Many of them, too, have been living in Pakistan for more than a decade now.

Prospects for repatriates in Afghanistan are dire

The drive to expel Afghan refugees from Pakistan has not been very successful so far. In 2015, around 85,000 Afghan refugees were forced to return to their home country, and it is expected that over 100,000 will go back to Afghanistan this year. These are comparatively small numbers.

Experts believe that the security and economic situation in Afghanistan is still dire, and most Afghan refugees would prefer to stay in Pakistan rather than risking their lives back home. “These Afghan citizens will be coming back to a country where their properties have been occupied, they don’t have any job opportunities and they also lack legal documentation which is essential to access their rights of being an Afghan citizen or as a legal returnee,” said Qurat Sadozai, regional director of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The Bertelsmann Transformation Index also points out in its 2016 Afghanistan report that repatriates often belong to the most vulnerable groups in Afghan society. Their access to the country’s social safety net – already one of the least developed in the world – is further obstructed, as government agencies “have not reached consensus with regard to administrative responsibility for these groups.“

Refugees in Pakistan face discrimination and harassment

Since the start of the campaign to expel refugees, the police crackdown and harassment of migrants has also increased. “If presidential elections can be held in Afghanistan, its citizens in Pakistan can also go back home,” Mushtaq Ahmad Ghani, minister for information for the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told media last year.

After criticism from local and international rights groups, however, the Pakistani government extended the registered refugees Proof of Residence cards until June 30, 2016.

Organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW), however, demand that the government extends the residency status for two years at least. “Pakistan’s six-month residency extension reduces Afghan refugees’ insecurity, but the government also needs to stop police abuse of refugees,” said Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “A two-year extension both sends the message that refugees shouldn’t be pressured to go home and would give officials time to work out resettlement to third countries and other longer-term solutions.”

Historic ties

But the Afghan refugees’ relation with Pakistan is not restricted to security matters and financial issues; it’s also deeply cultural and historical. The Durand Line, established by the British during their rule over India, to divide Afghanistan and the Indian territory now stands between the Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

However, the Pashtun-speaking people on both sides of the border have never accepted the Durand Line. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is extremely porous and people travel back and forth easily and frequently. The family ties between the Pashtuns living in Pakistan and Afghanistan are also very close.

It is the porous border and close Afghanistan-Pakistan relations that also make the crackdown on Taliban and other Islamist militants difficult for Kabul and Islamabad.

For many Afghans, Pakistan is their only home now. They want to stay on in Pakistan, but the military operations against militants are making it increasingly difficult for them to do so. As Islamabad blames Afghanistan for fueling insurgency across the Durand Line, many Pakistanis link terrorism to Afghan migrants living in their country.

Political solution

The governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran – which also hosts nearly one million Afghan refugees – need to work together to find a sustainable solution to the Afghan refugees issue. The international community, particularly the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, should also play its role in this regard.

But as the refugee problem is linked to the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the regional and international powers must step up their efforts to break the cycle of violence in the region. Only a political settlement can help improve the situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran.

Islamabad has a big responsibility in this regard. As long as Pakistan’s military establishment continues to use some factions of the Taliban as proxies to create instability and counter Indian influence in Afghanistan, the security situation in the region is unlikely to improve. The latest edition of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, BTI 2016, confirms, that “the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban syndrome persists” and continues to pose a great obstacle for the Pakistani military to deal with the militants.

The refugee problem is linked with Pakistan’s response to terrorism and its cooperation with Kabul and the international community. Harassing refugees and forcing them to leave the country won’t resolve the protracted crisis.

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  1. Bashir Ahmad says

    “However, the Pashtun-speaking people on both sides of the border have never accepted the Durand Line” Are you repeating the political rhetoric or have got some statistics of Pashtuns in KP who do not accept the Durand line!!?

  2. micheal stevenson says

    Pakistan should be the last country to miss treat refugees, they have to realize that since the Syrian war Afghan Pakistan and Syrian refugees are pouring into Europe. There are 1.9 million pakistani immigrants in the u.k alone. If terrorists supporting Pakistan mistreats other refugees then i guess its fair when we see Pakistani people get abused here in Europe.

    1. Mobeen says

      Dear Miicheal, your calculation of refugees living in UK may be right but most of these refugees are Afghans & many of these carry some kind of a Pakistani documentation like refugee papers now Syrians & many adding up from Eastern Europe countries, There are some Pakistani refugees but not in bulks, Pakistani’s living in UK are all based there from years & now with their 3rd & in some cases 4th generation, as far as treating refugees bad who are living peacefully is not acceptable anywhere but if you hear something like you stated in your comment from a citizen of well so called civilized nation like UK about the bad treatment to one group is rather pretty low & disgrace so calling a nation terrorist without any proofs is like building castles in the sand, no one supporting terrorist in any way, there are bullies who pouring in pounds & dollars for their games they are playing in this region & big mouths in the press who sell their hate around to the world, in some cases “in the name of freedom & culture” & some in the name of religion, but there”s no one by far who comes out & preach love peace & humanity neither in the so called civilized world & this is where we all are dividing ourselves & distances are growing, pardon my expression but this is a true fact.

  3. Brian Dean says

    As far as the economy is concerned, Pakistan has suffered a brain drain due to skilled people moving to other countries. If the good refugees are forced to leave the country, the economy will suffer again in the long term.

    1. Mobeen says

      Agreed with you Brian, you are right if the good refugees are forced yes but not the other kind. lol

  4. Sana Jan says

    The solution is that all the Afghan land under pakistan should be given back to Afghanistan and that’s when there will be no need for pakistan to kick out Afghans. Afghans would be living on their own land even thou they still do now but the pakistani keep saying get out of pakistan. In fact majority of the Afghan people live in Pashtun area and those lands are part of Afghanistan. Hundred years have passed already they have no right to keep that land and call it part of pakistan. They don’t have right to tell Afghan refugee to get out of those areas. Please next time a pakistani says get out through a history book at their face so they can learn something.

    1. Some one who had ancestors from Afghanistan says

      And maybe of those couple of hundred years Iran can also extend its claim during Nadir Shah’s and priors rule…….
      If I can also enlighten you, when Britexit was happening non of the locals ever raised their choice to join Afghanistan. They could have said something but they opted to join Pakistan. But that was then. And then the tribes took the onus of defending the border.

      Even the late leader Gaffar Khan choose India becuase he was a close friend of Gandi. Part of congress.

      Majority of then live in Karachi as well. So try telling the locals the leave to make way for Afghans. I don’t think so.

    2. Jordan GZ says

      You r right. The problem is in Durand Line, divide the pashtun nation in two..

  5. Jordan GZ says

    No one can seprate Pashtun from Pashtun, the Durand line is one of the worst line make to divide Pashtun nation. Majority Afghans live in Pashtun areas, in kPashtunkwa/south pashtunkwa/Fata areas and since Russian war 1977, and not in in panjab or sind/baluchistan. in Karachi city the 10 millions Pashtuns belong to fata and kPashtunkwa, and not form Afghanistan. so where is the problem?? Why so jelous panjabis and mahajars r also inmigrents came form india, so how they can say afghans r inmigrents, when they live in their own land in south and khyber Pashtunkwa..

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