IT is a protracted refugee crisis and all facets of the challenge surrounding the Afghan refugees in Pakistan deserve greater attention, internationally and inside this country too. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has on a trip to Pakistan rightly emphasised two aspects of the long-running Afghan refugee crisis: Pakistan has been a generous host for nearly four decades to Afghan refugees and, as security conditions in Afghanistan remain precarious, the continuing rights of the refugees must be respected, ie only their voluntary return should be facilitated. Unhappily, to the extent that there is a national debate on Afghan refugees and occasionally when it comes to the Pakistani state seeking leverage in its relationship with Afghanistan, the refugees are cast either as pawns or guests who have overstayed their welcome. But the reality is that the refugees are a long-suffering population; they should be treated with respect and in line with Pakistan’s international commitments and moral responsibilities.
Certainly, Mr Grandi’s visit has also highlighted another important aspect of the refugee problem in Pakistan: the outside world has not always done enough to help this country manage the crisis and help the refugees. The 1.4m Afghan refugees who are registered are less than half of their total estimated population of 3m in Pakistan. Protracted refugees crises tend not to attract the resources necessary to keep the refugee population safe and reasonably well taken care of. With security conditions in Afghanistan deteriorating and political uncertainty continuing, voluntary repatriations have virtually ended — meaning that Pakistan will have to manage a steady, and perhaps even an increasing, number of refugees in the immediate future. Visits by Mr Grandi and other efforts can help raise awareness of the protracted crisis, but a great deal more can and should be done. The outside world is rightly focused on the conflict inside Afghanistan, but the Afghans living as refugees outside the borders of their country should not be forgotten.
For Pakistan, the challenge remains to turn around a national debate that is suspicious of or outright hostile to Afghan refugees. It is nearly 40 years since the start of the refugee crisis and two generations of Afghans in Pakistan have known only this country as their home. The lives of unregistered refugees can be significantly worse than their registered counterparts. Forty years of service to refugees should continue with dignity and respect for all.
Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2018