Dawn News

Thousands of Afghan refugees in limbo in Pakistan

Afghan refugee Shapera, right, stands with her daughter Deevya near their house in a refugee camp built inside a civil war damaged government building in Kabul. – File photo by AP
Afghan refugee Shapera, right, stands with her daughter Deevya near their house in a refugee camp built inside a civil war damaged government building in Kabul. – File photo by AP

ISLAMABAD: Abdul Karim walked for nearly 12 hours to cross the border into Pakistan and escape the warlords who were raining rockets on his neighbourhood in Kabul. That was nearly two decades ago, when he was a teenager. Since then, he’s gotten married and raised six children, all born in Pakistan.    

He is one of 1.7 million Afghan refugees who have been living in limbo in Pakistan for years as part of one of the world’s largest and longest-running refugee crisis.

But after 30 years of hosting Afghans, many Pakistanis are growing frustrated with the toll they say the refugee population is taking on their country, and pressure is mounting on the government to do something.

The Pakistani government is now weighing whether to remove their refugee status, a step that would increase the pressure on them to go home.

Most of the refugees can’t fathom returning to Afghanistan any time soon.

They may feel like outsiders in Pakistan, but they say their homeland is still too violent and desperately poor.

“Unless the Pakistani government forced us back to Kabul, I am in no mood to go there,” said Karim. “There is no safety… We have nothing left there.”

The Afghan population in Pakistan is the legacy of Afghanistan’s repeated conflicts.

Millions streamed across the border after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. After the Soviets pulled out, the country was torn apart by fighting between warlords, and more Afghans fled.

When the Taliban rose to power in 1996 their strict form of Islam further terrorised the population.

The 1.7 million Afghans registered as refugees include those who remain from those exoduses and their children born since.

More than a third of them live in camps, while the rest are scattered across Pakistan.

Alongside them, another roughly 1 million Afghans are believed to be living in the country illegally.

A combination of reasons keeps them from returning. There are the big concerns: Afghanistan’s woeful economy, fears that its turmoil will only worsen when international forces leave at the end of 2014. And there are the equally weighty personal worries: Many parents worry their kids won’t get a decent education in Afghanistan or, if they’re girls, maybe no education at all.

Others like Kowki Nazari have no prospect of finding a job in Afghanistan.

She fled to Pakistan after her husband was imprisoned and tortured by the Taliban. She crossed the border by donkey in the dead of night and made her way to Rawalpindi, where she now works as a house cleaner.

Like many people in this neighbourhood she is an ethnic Hazara, a minority group in Afghanistan. Most Hazaras are Shia and as such have often been targeted by Sunni extremists like the Taliban.

If she returned to Afghanistan, she says her family would be destitute.

“I can’t work there because it’s not like Pakistan where the women are free to work,” she said.

As the refugee crisis has dragged on, there is a sense in Pakistan that the Afghans have become a burden the country should no longer be required to carry.

Generosity is turning to frustration and accusations that Afghans are responsible for crime and are undermining Pakistan’s security. Therefore, the atmosphere has become more hostile.

Earlier this summer, officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa threatened to evict thousands of undocumented Afghans. The deadline passed without an increase in deportations but worried aid groups and Afghans.

Talking to The Associated Press, the secretary in charge of the States and Frontier Regions Ministry, which has primary responsibility for refugee issues, said the Pakistani government would not renew the refugee status cards for registered Afghans when they expire on Dec 31.

Habibullah Khan said Pakistan would not forcibly evict anyone, but once the cards were revoked it would encourage people to return.

The ultimate decision on whether to renew them will be made by the cabinet.

Identity cards

The ID card provides registered Afghan refugees with certain protections. The cards are used for everyday activities like banking or registering for school.

Revoking them would potentially make Afghans much more susceptible to harassment by police.

When asked whether it was safe for the Afghans to go home, Mr Khan said the situation in Pakistan was not ideal either.

“Are these conditions exceptional to Afghanistan? If somebody asks me ‘Oh, there are bomb threats in Kabul?’ Then I would say ‘Then what about Peshawar? What about Karachi? What about Balochistan?’” said Mr Khan. He points out that every year tens of thousands of children are born to Afghan families in Pakistan, which often outweighs the number of people leaving.

Another concern for the Pakistani government is that the number of Afghans returning home is slowing, said the head of the United Nations refugee agency in Pakistan, Neill Wright.

Last year 52,096 Afghans were repatriated under a UN-run programme, according to UN figures. That was the second lowest number since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. So far this year about 42,000 Afghans have returned.

If the government does not renew the cards, Afghans could face more difficulty getting services and greater day-to-day troubles.

Afghans complain that police stop them for their papers and if they don’t have them, demand bribes not to detain them.

However, Mr Wright said that if the cards were not renewed by the Pakistani authorities, the Afghans would still be considered refugees by the UN. The agency could issue its own identity documentation but it’s unclear how much weight those would carry in Pakistan.

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Comments (14) Closed

Aug 24, 2012 06:10pm
Remove the root cause. Kick out US and NATO from Afghanistan, all refugees will leave
Aug 26, 2012 04:47pm
yes ... that is also true
Cyrus Howell
Aug 26, 2012 03:00pm
The Rabbit Family is not going to leave on their own. They are as frightened now as they were 30 years ago.
Cyrus Howell
Aug 26, 2012 02:49pm
Who is going to throw out the US and UN? You are AQ?
Saad (DXB)
Aug 24, 2012 10:58pm
Well KSA and USA are far away from Afghanistan and therefore, it's Pakistan who has been hosting these Afghans for over 3 decades. They have their own country.. They should leave Pakistan and go back to their country.. Enough is enough!! Pakistan is for Pakistanis, not for Afghans.
Aug 24, 2012 09:48pm
Excuse me, but do u realize how they have contributed to the state we are in? For sure the doing is ours, mullahs n military lead the way, but afghans have done nothing but harm in the last 30 years....throw get them out along with the mullahs
Aug 24, 2012 09:20am
We have one Afghan family living in our village for 25 years and they are not burden they are part of our community now.And how many Pakistani living abroad?
Karachi Wala
Aug 24, 2012 01:47pm
@ Lorraine, I agree with you but please do not forget the Afghan element and what the have been doing to their own country. It does not matter whether Pakistan, Saudi & USA claim the responsibilities. The happenings of last 30 some years are there for everyone to see.
Aug 24, 2012 01:05pm
Afghans should not be returned soon Afghans have never been a security problem they are living peacefully . pakistan must stop interfering in Afghanistan and then let Afghans leave on their own .
Mian Mithu
Aug 24, 2012 02:50pm
I think the Afghans and Afghan government are responsible for the plight of Afghan refugee. Afghans need to accept their responsibilities.
Aug 24, 2012 02:44pm
They never recognized Pakistan as a country back in 1947 and they still have the same behavior. I just wants they out of my Pakistan.
Wasil Burki
Aug 24, 2012 01:31pm
How many Pakistanis living in Afghanistan? The Afghans have nothing but hatred for us! Maybe you should go and live in an Afghan village!
Wasil Burki
Aug 24, 2012 01:27pm
It's about time! They are nothing but a burden to our society and MUST be sent back! Let them go and live in Afghanistan where they belong!
Aug 24, 2012 08:40am
Pakistan, Saudi & USA are responsible for the plight of most Afghan refugees. They need to accept their responsibilities.