The pain of being homeless can hardly be imagined.
The refugee calamity is the outcome of worrying proportions of persons fleeing from states either at war, failed states or repressive regimes to save their lives. The world community has the moral obligation to realize the agony, losses and suffering of the refugees to ease their burden and relieve them of it; obligations which the affording state cannot neglect. According to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, “A refugee is someone who fled his or her home and country owing to a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Many refugees are in foreign lands to escape the effects of natural or human-made disasters. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the world circumstances, which for refugees, can be even more dangerous. UN Secretary-General António Guterres rightly remarked, “This year, the COVID-19 pandemic poses an additional threat to refugees and displaced people, who are among the most vulnerable.”
The main effort of the Pakistani government remains to make these refugees responsible and capable people so that they serve their country well upon their return. Evidentially, Pakistan has tried its level best to host the Afghan refugees. It has provided them the same resources that it has to its people, even if the cost is beyond its bearing. The circumstances will remain the same as long as war continues in Afghanistan. Hence, a prosperous, stable and peaceful Afghanistan is vital for prosperous, peaceful and stable Pakistan, too.
Human history has witnessed that the refugee crisis is the outcome of natural and man-made disasters, armed conflicts, communal violence, civil strife or political instability. Post-World War II, countries have experienced an influx of refugees. Since the Israel-Palestine conflict took place, more than 7 million Palestinian refugees are scattered around the world. The Korean War forced around 1 million to 5 million people to flee, Vietnam War displaced 3 million people and since 1979 Afghanistan has been at war because of which 2.6 million people had to leave their homes. American invasion forced 4 million Iraqis to flee their homes. In the current era, 11.6 million Syrians have been facing the worst refugee crisis in the world. The worsening refugee situation compelled Europe to amend and toughen its refugee laws. The transformation has been into very severe and punitive laws; member states have expected the role of border guards of the European Union. There is a dire need to maintain a balance between humanitarian refugees and political resistance. States should adopt the policy of peaceful repatriation rather than an assertive policy and amalgamation into host states. The need of the hour was realized that refugees should be provided legal protection. Striving to meet this necessity, temporary relief agencies International Refugee Organization (IRO) and United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA) were formed in 1946 and 1943 respectively. In 1951 the Convention relating to the status of refugees was adopted and implemented in 1954. This Convention of 1951 broadly describes a refugee and obliged the member states for the provision of their basic human rights and legitimate needs. Hence, host states should welcome refugees instead of fencing their borders and tightening refugee policies. “The 1951 Refugee Convention is the key legal document that forms the basis of our work. Ratified by 145 State parties, it defines the term ‘refugee’ and outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them.”
Since Pakistan came into being, the country has been familiar to displaced people, and has accommodated and rehabilitated large refugee populations. The state which already had been struggling to handle the internal displacement and related challenges of its own people after the largest transmigration in history. According to a prudent estimate, around 15 million people moved sides in 1947. Pakistan has a 2611 km border with Afghanistan. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan around 6 million Afghans emigrated to seek shelter. In the handling of the Afghan refugee crisis Pakistan has been at the forefront, hosting over 3 million Afghan refugees and it became one of the largest host nations in the world. Despite economic hardships, numerous security challenges and political turmoil, Pakistan has coped with the Afghan refugee crisis including the ongoing rehabilitation process and repatriation. According to a UNHCR published report in 2017, 1.3 million Afghan refugees are registered and the same number of unregistered refugees are living in Pakistan.
Grant of refugee hardships is not a lasting solution to the discomfort and hardship of displaced persons. It is a temporary step taken by the host country to legalize their stay. However, Pakistan was supported with technical assistance and funding from UNHCR. According to a survey, 80% of the Afghan exodus in Pakistan occurred during 1979-1985. Another huge wave of refugees spilled over into Pakistan during the Afghanistan civil war from 1989-1996. 9/11 tragedy exacerbated the already volatile situation and a third wave of Afghan refugees entered Pakistan. As researcher Nasreen Ghufran discussed, Afghan refugees have been living here for the past three decades, the second and third generation Afghans born here who consider themselves Pakistanis, it will be difficult to convince them to go back home. Some Afghan refugees have proved responsible and productive citizens but many have been entrapped by forces that sponsor illegal activities including terrorism. Prolonged stay in ghettos and camps, earning their living despite spending a large amount of their life in a host country and not being able to make it their home. Waiting for durable and permanent measures to be taken in terms of a progressive and peaceful Afghanistan for so long, they have fallen prey to toxic ideologies, uncertainty and darkness. On the other hand, life has also been broadly anxious in Pakistan. An already shaky economy of Pakistan has even gotten worse. In the current time, debates have been ongoing that Afghan refugees are a burden on Pakistan’s economy. Pakistani government, in collaboration with UNHCR, facilitated refugees with the basic needs including health, clean drinking water and housing maintenance, leaving no question of these funds being of any good for Pakistan as the burden on the economy of Pakistan is rising with time. However, this cooperation could not survive beyond a decade following the settlement of refugees in Pakistan, calling for increased support permanently. Worsening law and order situation have made foreign traders and investors hesitant. The already struggling economy fabric has shattered, stimulating unemployment and inflation. Fragile economic and grim security situation shaped a new trend amongst Pakistani youth, they started migrating to developed countries. Apart from the economy, of late presence of refugees has posed challenges to Pakistan’s security due to emergence of refugee warrior communities, narcotics smugglers, and armaments and organized criminal networks mainly because of the open Pak-Afghan border, as found by a study published in the Refugees Magazine. Unchecked Afghan refugee exodus has changed the security scenario in Pakistan. Refugee camps were used as safe havens by terrorists in many cases. Thus, the scope of militancy and threat to security has turned vast in Pakistan for which the Government of Pakistan has deployed a large number of Army personnel on its western border.
There is no doubt whatsoever about the commitment Pakistani military has shown to root out terrorism from Pakistan, especially from the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas which has now become a part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The many counter-terrorism operations by the Pakistan armed forces have freed the affected areas of the threat of terrorism. In 2008, most part of FATA was under the control of terrorists. Pakistan military started various operations in 2008 which include Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched in 2014. The determined use of force, commitment and sacrifices by the Pakistan military against terrorism, eventually successfully cleared these areas. In fact, in 2014 the attack at the Army Public School in Peshawar further solidified the national determination to hunt and eliminate these terrorists. This is how Pakistan has played its part in the war against terror as a frontline state despite burdening its economy, human resource, and above all dealing with the consequential threat to the situation of law and order in Pakistan. In 2017, 123 attacks out of 130 were planned and executed by the ominous minds sitting inside Afghanistan.
The porous Pak-Afghan border made it easy for individuals and the drugs being cultivated in the bordering areas in Afghanistan to be trafficked in. This has created many challenges for Pakistan among which drug addiction is of grave concern, especially for the youth. The influx of illegal weaponry into Pakistan is also a phenomenon connected with the influx of Afghan refugees. UNHCR has suggested that Pakistan should absorb the registered refugees instead of repatriation of Afghan refugees. But the government of Pakistan is committed to peaceful and dignified repatriation rather than forceful despite all the dire cultural, socio-economic, and political ills. Most of the Afghan refugees are not willing to go back to the war dilapidated Afghanistan and have become a permanent member of the Pakistani landscape. The main effort of the Pakistani government remains to make these refugees responsible and capable people so that they serve their country well upon their return. Evidentially, Pakistan has tried its level best to host the Afghan refugees. It has provided them the same resources that it has to its people, even if the cost is beyond its bearing. The circumstances will remain the same as long as war continues in Afghanistan. Hence, a prosperous, stable and peaceful Afghanistan is vital for prosperous, peaceful and stable Pakistan, too.
The current status of the refugees who had migrated since the Russian invasion in 1979, 30% are staying in the refugee camps while the rest have shifted to the urban areas of Pakistan and have taken their surviving responsibilities on their own. Repatriation that started in 2001 aimed at all refugees going back to Afghanistan. One of the main challenges Pakistan had to deal with was the dilemma of unregistered and registered refugees. During 2007-2008 when Pakistan realized the need to register the refugees, people were reluctant to get themselves registered due to their fear of being sent back. The failure in being able to do this has been due to the state’s lacking resources, and also the hesitance of international aid and mostly the European community, after a period of crises, to remain with their donor programs. Pakistani government was working with the collaboration of UNHCR, however (unluckily), this cooperation could not live beyond a decade following the arrangements of refugees in Pakistan, which required permanent support. Overall, the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions has tried to present the issues of Afghan refugees stationed in Pakistan to the international community, lately the world has not considered Afghan refugees a problem at all. The major effort of the Ministry has been advocating and raising its voice for the betterment and rehabilitation of Afghan refugees.
The Government of Afghanistan under President Ashraf Ghani must be acknowledged for making efforts to create conducive environments for the return of Afghan refugees to Afghanistan from Pakistan. As compared to the previous regimes, the current government has taken up the issue as a serious concern. The current government has made some arrangements to absorb and re-accommodate Afghan refugees back to their homeland. However, there are still some loopholes in the current system in Afghanistan which are limiting the refugees from going back to their land.
There could be a way to assist their return, by establishing special zones for their living and also by creating a special quota for them in employment, be it in any domain. Financial and residential security make returning an attractive option for refugees. UNHCR has also shown a commitment to offering them an individual package of USD 200 for the refugees who were going back to Afghanistan. According to an estimation around 2.4 million refugees are still staying in Pakistan, and Pakistan is looking forward to international support for their repatriation in a better way but the international community is showing hesitance and reluctance. Pakistan has openheartedly hosted the Afghan refugees to the best of its ability, both financial and material. However, insufficient financial support and means from the international community have made it difficult for Pakistan to provide humanitarian assistance and repatriation to the Afghan refugees.
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