By Sanchita Bhattacharya*
On June 18, 2019, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) unanimously agreed on a joint 12-point declaration aimed at the “safe and honorable” repatriation of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan for the past four decades. In a declaration issued at the end of the Tripartite Commission meeting in Islamabad, they expressed their commitment to extend the existing Tripartite Agreement governing the voluntary repatriation of Afghan citizens living in Pakistan, pending approval by the Federal Cabinet. The parties also appreciated the progress achieved by the Government of Afghanistan in the development of the Policy Framework and Action Plan, the decision to implement the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework which reaffirms the commitment to include refugee returnees in the National Priority Programmes, particularly the Citizen’s Charter, as well as the enactment of the Presidential Decree on Land Allocation. They called for continued support for the implementation of these initiatives and requested that progress of these initiatives be shared with the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, including through an awareness-raising programme, in order to enable them to make an informed decision to voluntarily return, with the facilitation of and in coordination with the host government.
Also, on June 17, 2019, representatives of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and UNHCR, during the 6th Quadripartite Steering Committee Meeting held in Islamabad, reaffirmed their commitment to the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees [SSAR] and agreed to extend the refugee repatriation program to year 2021. According to a May 2019 report, between 2002 and 2019, a total of 4.4 million Afghan refugees have been repatriated from Pakistan.
According to UNHCR, Pakistan hosts more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees who have Proof of Registration (PoR) cards. The card allows Afghan refugees the right to temporary legal stay in Pakistan. The latest Census Report of Pakistan (2017) provides no specific number for Afghan refugees staying in the country though, according to a June, 2019 report, the Minister of State for States and Frontier Region, Shehryar Khan Afridi, stated that 68 per cent of the refugee population has been integrated with the mainstream Pakistani population, while 32 per cent live in camps.
2019 marks the 40th year of Afghan displacement. It all started in 1979, when the world witnessed a great movement of refugees crossing borders into Pakistan to seek shelter due to the ongoing war in Afghanistan. In the same year, the Government of Pakistan established the Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees in the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) to facilitate their settlement in each provincial capital. A Chief Commissionerate was also set up in Islamabad with a mandate to look after Afghan refugees. Regrettably, the organisation has turned into a white elephant; plagued with corruption, nepotism and favouritism, this institution has added to the miseries of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
The first wave of the Afghan refugee influx into Pakistan occurred as a result of the internal conflict following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Marxist-Leninist People’s Democratic Party and later due to the Soviet invasion of 1979. The second wave, during the 1990s, occurred as the Taliban gained control and their extreme Islamic policies, discriminatory practices and human rights’ abuses contributed to the flight of refugees into Pakistan. A third wave entered Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks, with the ouster of the Taliban Government in Kabul.
Pakistan is not a party to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor to the 1967 Protocol. It regulates the entry, stay and movement of foreigners through the Foreigners’ Act of 1946, according to which all foreigners without valid documentation, including refugees and asylum-seekers, are subject to detention, arrest, and deportation. Accordingly, electricity is frequently cut off in the villages and camps, houses destroyed, camps are closed down and thousands of refugees are pressured to leave against their will. State policy also gives the Police power to make random arrests without warrants and refugees are often victims of harassment and beatings by the officials. A major chunk of the Afghan population in Pakistan lives in difficult circumstances, and usually falls in the below poverty line category. Substantial needs relating to refugees’ access to education, reproductive health services, and vocational training and livelihood opportunities remain unmet.
The Peshawar school attack of December, 2014 was a watershed event vis-à-vis refugee situation in Pakistan, as the Afghans faced a backlash. A campaign to flush out militants from the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa resulted in raids, arbitrary arrests and harassment of Afghan refugees as well, and drove an estimated 33,000 Afghan refugees out of Pakistan just between January and February 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Though the refugee situation in Pakistan is gloomy, there is still a feeling of risk and social alienation from Afghanistan. As the migration started in the early 1980s, a sizeable chunk of the present generation has been born and brought-up in Pakistan, and find it exceedingly difficult to relate to their country of origin. Some refugees have been living in Pakistan for three generations, have established businesses, and some of them have even married locals, and are deeply integrated into Pakistani society. They do not think of going back to Afghanistan as it would mean starting again from scratch.
The refugees are also unwilling to return to Afghanistan due to the volatile atmosphere of the country. Over the past 10 years, more than 32,000 civilians have been killed and 60,000 have been wounded in Afghanistan. In the first quarter of 2019, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 581 civilian deaths. Children are also abducted by terrorists in Afghanistan to become suicide bombers, plant Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) or carry out other terrorist activities. A May 2018 UN report verified 84 cases of the recruitment and use of boys in the Afghan conflict in 2017. They were used as suicide bombers, for combat, as bodyguards, at checkpoints, to assist in intelligence gathering, and to plant IEDs.
General conditions in Afghanistan are also miserable. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan estimates that half of the population in the country would need food assistance over the course of 2019. These 3.3 million people would starve as a result of crop failures and dry irrigation channels, in the absence of such support. Drought in western Afghanistan has sent an additional 275,000 people in search of food, walking across the country, bewildered and desperate. Hunger will intensify malnutrition and illness. Any the refugee repatriation at this stage would only add to the existing misery.
The present state of the ‘peace talks’ give little reason for hope, with divergent negotiations led, respectively, by the US at Doha and Russia at Moscow. At Doha, the Taliban is negotiating with the US Government, while at Moscow the Taliban has been meeting with Afghan opposition leaders — including former President Hamid Karzai. Absent from both meetings is the incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his Government, who the Taliban dismisses as illegitimate and irrelevant. The dominance of the Taliban in both processes is suggestive of the future course of events in Afghanistan.
Any plans for repatriation of Afghan refugees at this stage are clearly misconceived and, as conditions in Afghanistan deteriorate, both on the security and economic front, the possibility of a new flood of refugees across the Durand Line once again looms large.
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management