PESHAWAR: Around three million Afghan refugees (registered and unregistered) seem to be a liability both for Pakistan and Afghanistan. A humanitarian problem is being associated with other issues like border management and terrorism etc.
Pakistan following the spirit of “Ansar-i-Madinah” had welcomed millions of Afghans with open arms in early 1980s. Islamabad is now abandoning the spirit of Muslim brotherhood and asking refugees that “enough is enough.” Afghans are blamed for the country’s law and order situation, terrorism and unemployment.
Adviser to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz’s frank statement that “refugee camps have become safe havens for terrorists” indicates major shift in the Islamabad’s Afghan policy.
Read: Afghan refugees get another stay extension
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak is giving provocative statements against Afghans, demanding federal government not to give further extension to refugees. The chief minister’s statements also encouraged traders and other groups to hold anti-refugees rallies in Peshawar.
“General perception in Kabul is that government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is close to army so refugees are victimised,” says a senior journalist from the Afghan capital. He said that hatred against Pakistan was 10 times high after clashes at Torkham.
History shows 100 per cent repatriation of refugees never happened anywhere in the world
On the other hand, Afghanistan, which was appealing refugees to come back to their country in mid 80s, is now reluctant to accept its own countrymen. Afghan government plea is that its internal security situation and economy are not in a position to absorb this huge load. The Afghan government recently asked Pakistan to continue its “hospitality” at least till 2020.
After the fall of Dr Najibullah government in 1992, and the subsequent rise of Taliban and fall of the regime in 2001, more than five million Afghans returned to their country under the voluntary repatriation programme.
At that time Afghanistan was in total chaos, but despite that the load was absorbed. Currently Afghanistan has an elected government and all other nation building institutions including the armed forces have established themselves well to steer the country out of the crises, but Kabul is not willing to accept its own people.
In 1986, President Dr Najibullah under National Reconciliation Policy was appealing refugees to give up refuge, because he had foreseen hard days for refugees living in Pakistan.
“I am very much concerned about the future of your children living miserable life in camps. You have 5,000 years old history. Please come back to your own country and your brothers here in Afghanistan are ready to share bread and butter with you,” Dr Najib had appealed refugees while addressing the nation on TV and radio before the end of his stint.
Late Dr Najibullah’s predictions are now proving accurate. Afghans, either having refugee status or unregistered, are in trouble. They are complaining about being tortured, detained and harassed in Peshawar, Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Quetta.
“Police are raiding our homes. Poor Afghans are subjected to extortion for securing their release,” said young Mohammad Khalid, who is running a sweet shop in Peshawar’s Board Bazaar.
UNHCR has set up help lines in the refugees’ concentrated areas to provide them with legal assistance in case police or any other agency arrests them.
When Najibullah government was coaxing and urging its countrymen to return to their homes, Pakistan’s state-run media was running aggressive propaganda campaign discouraging refugees from going back to their country. The then government in Kabul was named in the popular Pashto parlance as “Goodagai Hakumat” (puppet government).
Back then, the Afghan refugees were treated as ‘endangered’ species. They were enjoying full liberty. They did not require registration. Frozen meat of sacrificial animals and dates were transported through chartered planes from the Holy Land to Peshawar, Quetta for onward distribution in the refugee camps scattered across Pakistan. At that time refugees were considered as strategic and economic assets of Islamabad.
When much water has flown under the bridge, Pakistan has realised that it is time to say goodbye to refugees. All of a sudden, Minister for SAFRON Abdul Qadir Baloch Refugees seem to be liability for both Pakistan, Afghanistan came up with statistics that Afghans have encroached upon one million jobs.
Sources in SAFRON say that hasty decision about the future of refugees can cause a lot of blowback for the Pak-Afghan ties that are already at low ebb. They say that disagreement over the modalities for repatriation existed between security establishment and civilian setup.
From the horse’s mouth, the army is not in favour of giving extension to registered refugees and wants to send them back to their country while civilian setup suggests to give them one time extension till December 2017.
“Stakeholders are not on the same page and unilateral action against refugees will have serious implications for the country,” said the source, who is dealing with the refugees for the last two decades.
The UN-funded voluntary repatriation process is going very slow. Less than 5,000 refugees have gone back to their homes since January this year, but UN and Afghan government are asking Pakistan to be more hospitable.
This discouraging situation forced the UN refugee agency to increase cash assistance from $200 to $400 per head to make the package more attractive. A proposal is under consideration to fix return package at $3,000 per family.
“Voluntary repatriation has proved to be a futile exercise and it will take decades to send all Afghans to their country under this programme,” said the official.
History shows that 100 per cent repatriation of refugees had never happened anywhere in the world. Some sections are reintegrated into the local population and the host countries grant them citizenship. Currently Pakistan hosts 1.5 registered refugees, who give birth to around 70,000 children every year. Roughly 87 per cent of the total refugees are Pakhtuns.
“Like other countries Pakistan can integrate Afghans too. Almost 70 per cent of the refugee population is between the age of 15 and 25. They are born and brought up in Pakistan and do businesses here so why not give them citizenship,” said one senior functionary.
Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2016