Hosting Afghan Refugees – OpEd


Pakistan has been hosting a significant number of Afghan refugees since 1979. The influx of Afghan refugees into Pakistan began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in that year. Millions of Afghans fled their country seeking refuge from the conflict and instability.

Pakistan, due to its proximity to Afghanistan and its shared border, became the primary host country for Afghan refugees. The Pakistani government, along with international humanitarian organizations, established refugee camps and provided assistance to accommodate and support the refugees.

Over the years, the number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has fluctuated. At its peak in the 1980s, Pakistan hosted over three million Afghan refugees. With the change in political dynamics and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, the number of refugees has decreased, but a significant Afghan refugee population still resides in Pakistan. Likewise, hosting such a large number of refugees for an extended period has posed significant economic, social, and security challenges for Pakistan. However, the country has continued to provide support and assistance to Afghan refugees despite these challenges.

Since 1979, Pakistan is hosting millions of Afghan refugees despite the fact that Pakistan is neither a signatory to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (the Geneva Convention) nor to the protocol relating to the Status of Refugees of 31 January 1967. Pakistan for more than 40 years hosts about 4 million Afghan refugees (after Soviet invasion, 6 million fled Afghanistan) including 1.4 million unregistered and 0.8 million with Afghan citizen cards, the largest in the world. 

In addition to this, additionally, Pakistan welcomed 0.15 million Afghan asylum seekers after US withdrawal, while 50,000 (mostly Hazaras) entered illegally. Out of these, approx. 55,000 are still present in Pakistan. There are about 54 Afghan Refugee Camps operational in Pakistan. Out of which, 43 camps are in the province of KP. About 68% of Afghan refugees live in urban areas while only 32% live in the camps relying on national public services.

Pakistan’s hospitality has been unparalleled in hosting Afghan refugees while adhering to the highest standards of protection. Despite several socio-economic and security challenges, these refugees enjoy rights to health, education, business, trade etc like no other country. Pakistan has upheld its international protection obligations and pursued non-discriminatory policies towards Afghan refugees, notably in areas of education, health care and human capital development.

Similarly, refugees have free enrollment in govt primary schools and access to higher education with generous scholarships, free treatment in govt hospitals along with numerous livelihood opportunities. Pakistan’s progressive approach is further evident in the inclusion of Afghan refugees in the Govt’s national response plans to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these refugees run small businesses or do jobs and send remittances to their family members across the border.

It is a goodwill gesture from Pakistan that on the request of the Afghan Embassy, Pakistan has so far released 2350 Afghan citizens out of nearly 2600 in jail, who had been detained for various charges. For the ease of Afghans plying between Pakistan and Afghanistan for medical, business, tourism and Afghan refugees visiting their relatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan has made considerable efforts in improving the mechanism at various border crossing points such as introduction of online visa regime for Afghans, managing high volume of border crossings; Organizing 5 crossing points – recently one more added at Chaman, setting up of a joint committee for cross-border movement of nationals between both countries. Peshawar High Court has recently made a decision ordering issuance of Pakistan Origin Cards to Afghan husbands married to Pakistani women.

On the contrary, out of 21000 Afghans living in India, about 11000 are registered as asylum-seekers but not officially recognized as refugees. Yet India claims to be an ally and friend of Afghanistan. Unlike Pakistan, neighbours like Iran and Turkiye also have strict policy in place for Afghan asylum seekers which include area restrictions and forced repatriation. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filipo Grandi said, “hosting refugees is a responsibility that has not been equitably shared. We pay tribute to the generosity of Pakistan for hosting millions of refugees for 40 years”.

On 18 February 2020, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres while addressing the International Conference in Islamabad urged the world to show similar leadership Pakistan has shown in standing with refugees. He said, “Pakistan today is the world’s second largest refugee hosting country, Pakistan has provided the world with a global public good supporting Afghan refugees and its time for the international community to assume its responsibilities and to support Pakistan very meaningfully”.  Many Afghan refugees who studied in Pakistan have become successful academician, sportsmen, businessmen and in host of other fields and have success stories to narrate.

Many Afghan girls and women living in Pakistan as a refugee have become success stories. For example, Dr. Silsila Sherzad is a 30-year-old consultant psychiatrist and trauma therapist in Quetta. Najiba Faiz from Kunduz province of Afghanistan is a well-known television channel host and actor. Through Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas Program (RAHA), special programs are run to enhance skills of the refugees in various trades in order to enable them earn better livelihoods for themselves and their families. Other than a few exceptions, there are many settled Afghan refugees who acknowledge that Pakistan is their “first home” and local people ‘friendly’. Pakistan’s compassion for hosting Afghan refugees is a remarkable blueprint that the rest of the world could follow. As part of disinformation, Indian and likeminded Afghan media is misreporting that Afghan refugees in Pakistan face numerous challenges and hardships.

Shaikh Moazam Khan

Shaikh Moazam Khan is an Islamabad based expert of strategic affairs.

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