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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