“I was 20-year-old when my family migrated to Pakistan in August, 1984. We left everything there. My father had to start from scratch here. Slowly and gradually we set up a small business in Peshawar. My six children, four sons and two daughters, went to school and my elder brother Janwali also ran a meat shop in Karkhano Market. Suddenly government ordered Afghan refugees to pack up,” Khaista Gul, an Afghan refugee, narrated a woeful tale of his family.
The next day, he said, a police party raided their rented home in Tehkal Bala and handed down them a chit with clear warning written on it to pack up as soon as possible otherwise face the dire consequences.
“My family had no option but to get ready for the back home long journey. Unfortunately the story didn’t end there. We spent three days and nights in open the sky to pass through the woeful process of repartition. My two-year-old grandson Ali Jan died of diarrhoea,” Mr Gul recalled with tearful eyes.
The ordeal of Mr Gul is similar to numerous Afghan refugees, who are being repatriated to their war-torn country Afghanistan where conditions for them are not so favourable.
Members of civil society and right activists say that sudden repatriation of Afghan refugee would only fill Afghans with bitter memories despite the fact that Pakistan helped them to benefit from its education and health facilities for long.
Experts believe that forced repatriation of Afghan refugees will fire back and result in short and long term deep socio-economic impacts on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata. They are of the opinion that in early 80s after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the mass exodus from the neighbouring country into Pakistan created many social, political and economic problems for local people and the government.
Law and order was deteriorated, with it came drugs and gun culture, extremism and militancy were promoted in many ways. Afghan youth was radicalised through jihadi literature. Experts also think that after a decade, Afghan refugees took over big and small businesses in KP, Fata and in some other cities of Pakistan which resulted in joblessness of local people.
Rahimullah Yousafzai, a senior journalist and expert on Afghan affairs, said that Pakhtun leaders were not in a position to affect decision of the government. He said that forced return of Afghan refugees would definitely affect geo-political scenario in the region.
Pakistani government, he stressed, should have drafted a comprehensive policy for repatriation of Afghan refugees belonging to different walks of life. “This sudden and uncalled for way of Afghans return will pay us costly in the long run,” Mr Yousafzai feared.
Zahidullah Shinwari, senior vice president of Pakistan Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PACCCI), said that forced repatriation of Afghan refugees would cast far-reaching bad impact on Pak-Afghan relations and would also cause long and short term effects on their socio-economic fabric.
He said that local industry would lose 80 per cent skilled manpower mostly comprising Afghan young men. He said that although local unskilled youth would get an opportunity of private employment, yet industry in the province would suffer for quite some time to train them.
Mr Shinwari said that complete repatriation of refugees was a dream. When a generation was born and bred in the host country, the young people remained reluctant to return to their homeland, which they had not seen before and where they had not been to school and had not played with their peer group.
“We have taken up this issue with the authorities concerned, requesting them to rethink the policy of repatriation of Afghan refugees. The business community of the province wants the federal and provincial governments to prolong the stay of Afghan investors, businessmen, skilled labourers and professionals including doctors and engineers, who in a way contribute to our economy and who had no track record of involvement in criminal or terror activities,” said Mr Shinwari.
He said that policymakers should consider positive and negative points while dealing with Afghan refugees.
Talking about Pak-Afghan trade, he painted a dismal picture and said that PACCI had been rendered dysfunctional as it was a European-funded project formed to promote trade relations between the two countries. “Afghanistan is a good market for Pakistani products but Kabul has changed its policy of dependence on Pakistani goods over the years and extended its trade ties with Iran, India and China. This will directly affect our local industry and small traders mostly from KP and Fata,” Mr Shinwari observed.
He said that a large number of local traders, transporters and entrepreneurs hailing from KP and Fata had already lost their jobs as they used to market and sell Pakistani products in Afghanistan. Forced repatriation, he opined, could only breed hatred, conflict and might worsen relations between the two countries.
A senior police official in Peshawar on condition of anonymity told this scribe that law and order situation would improve generally in the entire province and especially in and around Peshawar once the repatriation of Afghan refugees was completed.
He claimed that around 90 per cent Afghan refugees were involved in street crimes and terror activities. “We strongly believe our law and order will not only improve but also help local residents to set up their own businesses and attract investors from other provinces. Peace is a perquisite for a prosperous society,” the official explained.
Mian Iftikhar Hussian, central secretary general of Awami National Party, said that policy of federal and provincial governments about forced repatriation of Afghan refugees would only benefit terrorists and seriously affect ties between the neighbouring countries. He said the issue of Afghan refugee’s return should be dealt in accordance with international rules.
“ When we say forced repatriate of Afghan refugees will not be in the interest of Pakistan and that it will hurt Pak-Afghan political ties, unfortunately people translate our stance the other way round,” he regretted.
Mr Hussain said that socio-economic impacts of Afghan refugees’ return would be deep and huge as it would trickle down to all spheres of life including society, economy, politics, art and culture.
“Afghan refugees need sympathy, respect and a helping hand to resolve their issues regarding their return on priority basis. The role of KP government is pivotal in the process of Afghan refugee’s repatriation. If we don’t do so, it will fire back and will not result in peace on our soil,” Mr Hussain warned.
Shafeeq Gigyani, chief of Poha Foundation, pointed out that 70 per cent of the repatriating Afghan families comprised youngsters between 18 and 25 age group and around 20 per cent locals and Afghan refugees had intermarriages. He said that recently Pakistani women, who had married Afghan men, staged a protest in Peshawar and demanded legal status for their spouses.
“We are going to move court on this very important issue on their behalf. This will affect badly family life and mutual relationship of large number of people across the Durand Line. We should exploit the potential of young Afghans, born and bred on our soil, in our country’s interest as tomorrow they will hold important offices in Afghanistan. If they are treated well, they will not look up to other neighbours but will prefer Pakistan,” Mr Gigyani argued.
Zarnoor Afridi, deputy chief of Jamaat-i-Islami for Fata, said that return of Afghan refugees, especially from tribal areas, would cast short and long term effects on the locals. He said that Afghans had virtually occupied every small and big business. He said that according to a survey carried out by local political administration, out of 2,200 shops, 1,700 were owned and run by Afghan refugees.
“One can imagine how immense impacts will Afghan’s return cast on tribal residents. Our party’s position on the issue is that a respectful repatriation will enable Afghans carrying good memories of long hospitality. After all Afghanistan is our brother Islamic state,” Mr Afridi maintained.
ANP leader Afrasiab Khattak, who is also former chief of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, when approached, said that briefly he could say that forced eviction of Afghan refugees was in total violation of international humanitarian laws. “It is creating a humanitarian crisis on both sides of the Durand Line. Despite knowing the fact that conditions inside Afghanistan are not conducive for their return, insistence of Pakistani authorities on pushing them out is aimed at creating chaos in Afghanistan and making the work of Taliban easier,” he added.
He said that in total absence of any legal mechanism for protection of refugees, Pakistan state was throwing them out for achieving its strategic objectives at the cost of immeasurable human suffering.
He said that the present mode of repatriation would negatively impact social, economic and political life in Pakhtun belt of Pakistan.
All political stakeholders, members of civil society, intellectuals, business tycoons, and experts are agreed on one point that forced repatriation of Afghan refugees would not benefit us either. They believe that a comprehensive policy is need of the hour for the systemic, gradual and respectful return of Afghan refugees for cementing mutual ties of Pakistan and Afghanistan to pave way for restoration of durable peace in the restive region.
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2016