Pakistan currently hosts a population of 4-5 million Afghans, with about two million of them residing illegally. the lasting challenges stemming from this influx, even more than four decades of the soviet invasion, have now become unbearable.
Following the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979, we witnessed a huge influx of Afghan refugees into Pakistan. This was over four decades ago and since then Pakistan has hosted and accommodated in them in every possible way. The prolonged presence of Afghan refugees and their continuous influx into Pakistan whenever political situations changed in their country has had profound political, ethnic, economic, and social implications for Pakistan. There have been three major waves of Afghan refugees in the past forty years: the first wave came after the Soviet invasion, the second followed the 9/11 War on Terror, and the third emerged after the second takeover by the Taliban following the U.S. withdrawal.
Although several small groups of Afghan refugees have voluntarily repatriated to Afghanistan from time to time, new arrivals continue to balance those who leave. Currently, there are still over 4-5 million Afghans in Pakistan, of whom two million have illegal status. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 300,000 Afghans fled to Pakistan again following the Taliban's takeover of Kabul in August 2021.
The significant problems that Pakistan faces due to the unusually large influx of Afghan nationals continue to persist even after more than four decades of the traumatic events of the Soviet invasion. Unfortunately, this ongoing pressure and its negative impact have now become unbearable and are major factors contributing to overall internal instability in the country.
Pakistan, however, not only hosts millions of Afghan refugees and illegal Afghan residents but also nationals from several other countries, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bosnia, the Middle East, and some African states. The presence of Afghan and other refugees has serious consequences for Pakistan, especially in large metropolitan cities, notably in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Balochistan, urban Sindh, and the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Unfortunately, Pakistan has experienced 24 suicide attacks this year, and compelling evidence indicates that 14 of these attacks were carried out by nationals belonging to Afghanistan.
Hosting them all has placed an enormous burden on Pakistan's limited resources, among other pressing issues. International aid for Afghan refugees initially came to a complete halt in 1998. Currently, the UNHCR provides only a monthly token amount of Rs. 25,000 directly to registered Afghan families, which is far from adequate. All other expenses are borne by Pakistan, with no assistance from the UNHCR or the international community. As new crises continue to emerge daily, Afghan refugees and illegal Afghan immigrants in Pakistan have faded from public memory, but they remain a daily reality that we must contend with, along with all the accompanying challenges.
Following the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979, we witnessed a huge influx of Afghan refugees into Pakistan. This was over four decades ago and since then Pakistan has hosted and accommodated in them in every possible way.
Some of the major problems among a host of others, are briefly as under:
▪Constant friction between Afghan refugees and the Pakistani population, on account of the land occupied by the refugees.
▪Rising unemployment as refugees, particularly unregistered and illegal refugees, tend to work at much cheaper rates. With a substantial influx of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, not only would it strain the country’s economy, but also put pressure on the healthcare and education services due to overcrowded hospitals and schools. Such a huge influx of Afghan refugees has cost Pakistan PKR 100 arab. Consequently, the government may be compelled to offer lower wages.
▪Afghan traders have their businesses in different cities of Pakistan but frequently evade taxes. For instance, in Peshawar alone, these traders became billionaires but have avoided paying taxes. This has created a burden for the local taxpayers and businessmen, adversely affecting the growth of revenue collection.
▪Severe competition for limited animal grazing pastures and disputes over water supply. According to the UNHCR, Afghans brought with them 45,000 camels, 35,000 cows, and 25,000 donkeys and thousands of other livestock, which has grown over the years.
▪Overcrowding of limited healthcare facilities, housing shortages, and a substantial rise in property prices due to increased demand. Additionally, there is excessive pressure on schools and other academic institutions.
▪An influx of unregistered arms has contributed to the spread of the "Kalashnikov culture" and easy access to automatic small arms. This poses a significant threat to Pakistan's internal security, resulting in a surge in terrorism, crime rates, murders, and kidnappings for ransom.
▪The continuing violence and terrorism originating from Afghanistan represents a direct threat to Pakistan's internal security and stability. The pressure on Pakistan's western borders has escalated due to this ongoing violence and instability in Afghanistan.
▪The huge influx of drugs, facilitated by this situation, has permeated all sections of society, particularly affecting young and vulnerable children and young adults. Pakistan has also become a hub and transit point for drug trafficking to the rest of the world, causing damage to its international image.
▪When the interests of refugees clash with those of the local population, tensions may arise, and locals, in order to safeguard their own interests, have taken a firm stance against refugees, as has occurred in KP on multiple occasions.
▪The presence of Afghan refugees, particularly illegal immigrants, has contributed to issues like inflation, child labor, and the spread of diseases such as poliomyelitis and malaria.
It is worth noting that Pakistan is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and the Refugee Protocol of 1967. These international agreements provide definitions for the term 'refugee' and establish the rights of refugees, as well as the legal obligations of host states in protecting them. Despite not being legally bound to accept refugees on its soil, Pakistan has extended a warm welcome to them and has supported them as our neighboring Muslim brethren for the past four decades.
Despite certain institutional arrangements implemented by the government, such as the establishment of the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) and the office of the Chief Commissioner of Afghan Refugees (CCAR), there has been a lack of an approved policy by the parliament with political ownership to address refugees, their integration, or deportation.
In 2007, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement which finally gave Afghan refugees in Pakistan the right to register and obtain a Proof of Registration (PoR) card. These cards were issued by Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) in collaboration with SAFRON and the UNHCR. The cards had to be renewed every year and were valid until 2020, after which their data has been shifted to biometric identity documents.
PoR cardholders are allowed temporary residence in Pakistan, granting them freedom of movement and access to public health and education. They can also rent property, open bank accounts, and register births in their families. However, it's important to note that they are not permitted to work legally, although many do find employment in the informal sector. According to UNHCR, as of June 2022, the verification process for approximately 1.4 million registered refugees had been completed, and nearly one million of them had been issued PoRs.
In 2017, Pakistan initiated a program to register the previously undocumented Afghans by issuing Afghan Citizenship Cards (ACCs). The ACC serves as a temporary identity document for Afghans who lack other forms of identification, offering fewer benefits compared to the PoR. ACC holders are permitted to stay temporarily in Pakistan and enjoy freedom of movement, but they do not have access to public health services or public education. According to certain reports, approximately 840,000 refugees had been issued these cards by the end of 2021.
In recent months, Pakistan has introduced two significant initiatives for refugees. Firstly, the government has sanctioned a new visa policy for Afghans who aim to settle in third countries. Secondly, it has eased access for Afghan traders to cross checkpoints. However, there has been limited information available regarding tax laws, trade facilitation, and long-term economic integration provided to these traders. Consequently, various challenges persist in terms of both border security and the facilitation of regular migration, which the government should address through legislative clarity.
In order to protect our national interest and internal and external security, Pakistan should abandon this ad hoc approach and take a firm decision, along with the incorporation of requisite laws, to ensure that no illegal and undesirable element continues to benefit from this ambiguity of policy and action. With the latest developments following the Taliban’s return to power last year, Pakistan, like other countries in the region, has officially closed its borders to new refugees. Nevertheless, thousands continue to pour into Pakistan through various points in the long porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is, therefore, a welcome step taken by the government to identify and deport all the illegal immigrants, including Afghans to their countries of origin.
The repatriation of Afghan refugees now needs to be carried out in an organized manner, aligning with recognized international laws such as the UN Convention of 1951 and the Refugee Protocol of 1967, even though Pakistan is not a signatory to these agreements. Additionally, the political and security situation in Afghanistan is gradually improving. Afghanistan is indeed in dire need of young and educated Afghan refugees to return to their country and contribute to its socioeconomic development, which is essential for long-term political stability and security. Throughout the world, there are examples of nations that have been developed by their returning expatriates, including refugees. Prime instances include China, Ireland, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and many others.
In recent years, even these prosperous Western nations, many of which operate as social welfare states, have expressed frustration due to an increased influx of refugees. These individuals are fleeing from regions that were once colonies of the UK and Europe, including areas in Africa, the Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan. These refugees often leave their home countries due to various reasons, including conflict and war, which can be attributed to the involvement of Western nations, among other factors. Similar to Pakistan, these developed countries also grapple with the challenges and negative consequences of hosting a large number of refugees and illegal immigrants.
In fact, it would not be wrong to say that a large concentration of refugees and illegal migrants has become an existential issue for the West. Brexit, the rise of Islamophobia, populism and extreme-right and extreme-left politics, home-grown terrorism, economic difficulties, unemployment, social and communal tensions and the fall of moderate governments one after the other in recent years in the USA and Europe can well be attributed to the difficulties arising out of massive influx of refugees. EU, as an institution, has almost come to a breaking point on differences on how to distribute refugees on equitable basis among themselves and put a cap on the number of refugees to be accepted in their countries.
To safeguard their national interests, countries around the world have implemented measures aimed at either closing their borders to immigrants or taking strict actions to expel them. For instance, Australia intercepts incoming immigrants at sea and detains them on a remote island located 300 nautical miles from the mainland until legal and judicial procedures are completed. The Netherlands has established a floating prison to hold illegal immigrants and refugees at sea until their cases are resolved. The UK, Italy, Greece, and other countries attempt to prevent migrant boats from docking on their shores. In some instances, coastal authorities in these nations have refused to provide assistance to refugee boats in distress or facing technical issues, despite their legal obligations to accept refugees. In the case of the United States, they have constructed a border wall to prevent the entry of immigrants and refugees, particularly those coming from Latin and South America, notably Mexico.
It is a normal and acceptable policy and practice of all Western and other countries to regularly check and deport illegal residents. Anyone overstaying their visa duration or misusing the visa status is promptly arrested and deported. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) regularly operates flights for repatriation of illegal immigrants. Even in our region, we have seen Iran sending back 10,31,757 refugees back to Afghanistan as it could not bear to host them any longer.
Pakistan is well within its right to clear its territory of illegal migrants and also to repatriate Afghan refugees.
The writer has served as an Ambassador to China, the European Union, Belgium, Luxembourg. and Ireland. She has also authored and edited several books including Magnificent Pakistan, Pakistan-China All Weather Friendship, and Lost Cities of Indus.
E-mail: [email protected]
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