Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Courtesy: Syed Mohammad Ali
For more than three decades, Pakistan has been home to one of the world’s largest refugee communities due to multiple waves of Afghans crossing over the porous international border to flee repeated bouts of escalating conflict within their war-ravaged country.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had unleashed the first wave of refugees into Pakistan and neighbouring Iran, but then more refugees came to escape years of civil war, and then the brutality of the Taliban regime. Since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, some 3.8 million have returned home, but around 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees chose to remain in Pakistan, with roughly another million living among our midst illegally.
While broader geostrategic interests such as the proxy war against the Soviets and the ‘war against terror’ have triggered the repeated exodus of Afghans from their homeland, international support to help Pakistan cope with this long-lasting refugee influx remains modest at best. Refugees have added further pressure on limited public goods available within our country. Popular perceptions of refugees have also become more negative since the past decade as Afghans are often suspected of being linked to militant and terrorist networks. In large urban centres like Karachi, Afghans have also become caught up in ongoing ethnic conflicts.
While some Afghans have managed to create a niche for themselves within Pakistan, a majority of them are confined to reside in squatter settlements and have a tough time making ends meet. Hazara Afghan refugees in Quetta are also being subjected to targeted sectarian attacks.
Most Afghan refugees have received little assistance and they still think of themselves as outsiders in Pakistan, despite having lived here for years. Unfortunately, the prospects of them returning to their homeland remain dismal. The Afghan government has repeatedly admitted that it lacks the capacity to reintegrate returning refugees. This situation will probably become even more difficult as uncertainty increases in our neighbouring country after the withdrawal of the US forces.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently admitted that it has followed a misguided strategy in dealing with the nearly five million refugees it helped return to Afghanistan since 2002. Besides providing Afghan returnees meagre financial and logistical support, the UNHCR has failed to effectively reintegrate them back home. Development agencies like the UNHCR should have pooled resources and worked more closely with Afghan authorities to focus on improving the security and infrastructure of particular localities where refugees were being encouraged to return en masse.
The failure to adopt such a holistic approach has resulted in a bulk of refugees congregating around Kabul, which has experienced a tripling of its population in just seven years. Nearly 60 per cent of communities surveyed in a recent study by the UNHCR and the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation found returnees to be living in worse conditions than local communities that had not left the country.
It remains very difficult for Pakistan to cater to the existing Afghan population in our midst, let alone contend with another potential influx triggered by further uncertainty in Afghanistan. Instead of wasting untold amounts of resources in the effort to singularly fight terrorism, international powers should have paid more attention to the lingering development needs of Afghanistan in general, as well as addressing the particular needs of Afghan refugees to enable them to return to their home country, rather than leaving them stranded abroad.