Afghans are the most unfortunate ones on the planet that they have in trouble in their homeland and with neighbours, soon after they emerged as a nation in 1747 due to their geography and geo-strategic importance well described by great poet Alama Iqbal, “the heart of Asia and Lord Curzon a British statesman, foreign secretary and viceroy in United India, “the roundabout of Asia.
Afghans remained sandwiches and victims of the expansionist policies of Russian, Persian particularly British imperialisms in the 19th and 20th centuries. Afghans faced the wrath of British colonial power in three Anglo-Afghan Wars which resulted in splitting a slice of their homeland under the name of the Durand line which divided tribes, their lands and graveyards into two states Afghanistan and United India and now a part of Pakistan, the rest is history.
The fresh waves of miseries engulfed the Afghan nation when former Soviet forces interred Afghanistan in 1979 and the heartland of Afghans once again became the battlefield of the two superpowers. Consequently, more than 6 million Afghans were forced to migrate. About 3.4 million came to Pakistan, 2 million to Iran and the rest went to other countries.
The second phase of Afghans leaving their homeland and entering Pakistan started when infighting emerged soon after Seven parties Afghan Mujahidin alliance formed their government in Kabul under the famous Mecca accord.
The third layer of Afghan refugees entered Pakistan in the year 1996 against the Taliban style of governance and their attitudes under the Late Mullah Umer.
The fourth wave of Afghan refugees came to Pakistan, soon after the 9/11 incident in 2001 and thereafter US invasion of Afghanistan.
The fifth and fresh contingent of Afghan refugees reached Pakistan, soon after the hast and unmanaged with drawl of US forces and return of Taliban government again.
Above all, there is another kind of Afghans, who are called Pawendas or nomadic tribes. They used to enter Pakistan in the spring and go back to Afghanistan in the winter. This practice has in vague for centuries and continues to date. They are settled in the country, particularly Balochistan and Sindh but the police and other agencies involved in the recent crackdown on Afghan refugees can’t differentiate between them and they are treated in the same way.
Pakistan welcomed all Afghan refugees every time, declared them as war heroes and defenders of Pakistan, defeating the former Soviet military in their homeland at the cost of 4 million Afghans, and secured Pakistan’s warm waters. Afghan refugees have been allowed to settle in rural and urban centers and carry out all kinds of businesses without any restrictions or regulations for the last four decades despite terrorism and terrorist violence across the country in which more than 80 thousand lost their lives.
It is also a fact, that most of the Afghan refugees during their long stay here have got Pakistani ID cards and passports to travel abroad without any restrictions or regulations under any law of the country. All that sheer ignorance of the ruling elites was due to the attraction of billions of US dollars coming into the country and their engagement in plunging these dollars and making their economic empires within the country and abroad.
Now the Taliban government is in Kabul, as wished by Pakistan in its strategic depth policy but the relations between the two governments have become strained due to recent terrorist activities carried out by TTP from the soil of Afghanistan into Pakistan and the Taliban’s inaction against the TTP and Pakistan in return uses Afghan refugees as a tool to pressurize Taliban government. As a result, Afghan refugees have become sandwiched between the two governments because the grass always gets trampled when mighty elephants fight. Therefore, everyone has felt the pain of 1.7 million Afghan refugees told to leave Pakistan by the end of October this year without normalcy having returned to their war-ravaged Afghanistan.
The decision was taken in an apex committee meeting headed by Prime Minister Anwarul Haq Kakar and attended by the army chief, among others. The committee also decided that movement across the border would be subject to passports and visas, while electronic Afghan identity cards (or e-takers) would only be accepted until Oct 31.
The plight of Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Despite being borne and growing up in Pakistan for last four decades, they have been denied citizenship and live as stateless in the country, consequently they are denied basic rights that all citizens are entitled. They lack access to the legal rights and protection, facing obstacles while travelling by air or rail with in or abroad due to having no CNIC or passport which are prerequisite for travellers. Being a stateless, they are denied birth registration and marginalised in the country and have no access to education and health facilities or securing formal employment and are exploited as low paid labour.
The irony is that their brother Afghans who migrated to non Muslim western countries have got citizenship and other rights after specific years but in the Muslim countries particularly in Pakistan they are wondering as stateless and denied basic rights.
Further, Afghan Refugees are blamed for crime, drugs, and terrorism but Afghan refugees’ contribution to the labor market (especially construction and agricultural work) and investments in Pakistani businesses (transport and food) remains unrecognized. Their spending on health and housing and the Rs2 billion that their relatives abroad send them through Pakistan’s banking channels is also ignored.
Afghans with valid visas confront non-renewal challenges; the post-Aug 2021 refugees face extraordinary challenges as they lack access to work, bank accounts, and, importantly, refugee camps; basic schooling; and health facilities. Single men and women with children are especially vulnerable and need protection and safe houses. They were abandoned both by international donors and Pakistan soon after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
Reaction and blame games over repatriation of refugees
The sudden, untimely repatriation and arrest of Afghan refugees by the LEAs have spread havoc and attracted vide range of criticism within and abroad.
Afghan spoke person, Zabiullah Mujahid reacted promptly, “The behavior of Pakistan against Afghan refugees is unacceptable. The Pakistani side should reconsider its plan. Afghan refugees are not involved in Pakistan’s security problems. As long as they leave Pakistan voluntarily, that country should tolerate them.”
On the other hand, FO Spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch dispelled the impression that all undocumented immigrants, including Afghan nationals, to leave Pakistan by October 31, or risk imprisonment and deportation to their respective countries.
Farhatullah Baber of PPP tweeted, “Once again playing football with refugees. Once again manipulating for some other objectives. Once again angry knee knee-jerk reaction. Doomed to end in a backlash. The tripartite agreement allows only voluntary repatriation
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said the decision to evict foreign nations, which it said was alleged because they had links to terrorist and criminal groups, reflected “not only an absence of compassion but also a myopic and narrow view of national security”. “The large majority of such people are vulnerable Afghan refugees and stateless persons for whom Pakistan has been home for several generations,” it said, adding that it was “unfair” to hold all accountable for the mistakes of a few.
A United Nations official Qaisar Khan Afridi, of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also opposed the deadline. “Any refugee return must be voluntary and without any pressure to ensure protection for those seeking safety,”
UNHCR and the UN Migration of Asia Pacific have also appealed to Pakistan to continue its protection of all vulnerable Afghans who have sought safety in the country and could be at imminent protection risk if forced to return.
The international humanitarian community has called on Pakistan to continue extending protection to all vulnerable Afghans who have sought safety in the country, as they could be at imminent risk if forced to return to Afghanistan.
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, also echoed, that refugees’ right to shelter, healthcare, and legal counsel must be protected and slammed reports that Afghan refugee settlements were being razed and their occupants summarily evicted.
The leadership of major political parties, Maulana Fazalur Rehman of JUI, Mehmood Khan Achakzai of PMAP, Aimal Wali Khan of ANP and PTM also strongly opposed the ongoing atrocities against the Afghan refugees, voicing their opposition to the ruthless drive to repatriate Afghans by force from the country and claiming that even those with the requisite paperwork were being hauled away in an indiscriminate crackdown and blamed the law enforcing agencies for collecting huge amounts from them in return to let them free from police detention centers.
Pakistan’s dilemma to tackle the situation
Pakistan is stuck in a great dilemma. The repatriation of millions of refugees is a huge undertaking. The unplanned and ill-thought, cracking down on and rounding up over a million or two illegal immigrants, holding them in detention facilities, feeding them and transporting them to the border, or arranging for them to fly out of Pakistan, would require a logistical plan and human as well as financial resources. The irony is that no one within the government has any idea of the number of illegal immigrants in Pakistan.
Pakistan has hosted between 1.3 and 3.6 million refugees for over 40 years; many of them have returned several times due to regime changes in Kabul. In Pakistan, Afghan refugees have different categories: 1.4 million hold proof-of-origin cards (POC); 840,000 have Afghan citizen cards (ACC); and over 700,000 are undocumented and have entered Pakistan between 2018 and 2020.
Pakistan faces international pressure to sign up for the UN refugee convention (Pakistan is not a signatory and thus does not have national legislation guiding refugee and asylum protocols or non-refoulment, which is why it can deport vulnerable Afghans without breaching local or international law).
Pakistan has not signed any international convention nor enacted any law or policy for refugees. However, Pakistan followed the principle of non-refoulment as the basis for providing refugee status in the past. The cabinet decision of 2017 for state and frontier regions (SAFRON) to propose appropriate laws and make a clear-cut policy remains unimplemented.
The emergence of the TTP and numerous other militant groups have since posed significant challenges to the political and economic stability of the country. The influx of foreign fighters, weapons, and radical ideologies into Afghanistan contributed to economic instability within Pakistan itself.
Recommendations for amicable repatriation of the Afghan refugees
Multilateral and bilateral agencies and the Pakistan government must put their heads together and chalk out the time frame for the repatriation only after the environment becomes conducive for the settlement of Afghan refugees in Afghanistan.
Pakistan and the UNHCR should call an international conference to discuss immediate solutions for the registered and unregistered Afghan population in Pakistan and make necessary financial and logistic resources available for repatriation.
Pakistan should enact a law (40 years overdue) and clear policies for refugees and undocumented Afghans and adopt recommendations submitted to the parliamentary committee on human rights. It must adopt transparent screening processes to renew Afghan nationals’ visas.
Pakistan should immediately stop humiliating, incarcerating and forcibly deporting Afghans. Repatriation exercise would be undertaken in a “phased, deliberate and orderly manner”. The process would proceed depending on the number of “illegal immigrants in Pakistan and the arrangements” for their return to their respective countries. The refugee return must be voluntary and without any pressure, harassment, and full protection from corrupt practices.
Pakistani rulers must understand that the Afghans cannot be wished away. They have been and are a part of the country’s sociopolitical fabric, and a compassionate, sustainable solution must be sought for their plight. Abandoning and pushing them in haste to Afghanistan will only sow seeds of future discord and security challenges to the country.
Taliban government is facing multiple socio-economic cum political challenges. Non of the country including Pakistan has recognised their government. Therefore, there is increasing apprehension against forced deportation by Pakistan because there does not exist a state or its basic institutions to offer them social protection including shelter in the forthcoming winter in Afghanistan, therefore , the government must review its repatriation plan on humanitarian grounds.