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Respite for refugees

February 27, 2019

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ON Monday, Prime Minister Imran Khan said he had issued instructions to the relevant authorities to allow registered Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan to open bank accounts here. This new policy would be a way of inducting the large number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan into the formal economy, he explained. Welcomed by international rights groups such as Amnesty and the UN refugee agency — and derided by some members of the opposition — Mr Khan’s decision follows a statement he made last September, when he said he wanted to see all Bengalis and Afghans living here for more than four decades to be issued national identity cards and passports. Clearly, this issue is one that is close to the prime minister’s heart. Pakistan is said to ‘host’ an estimated 2.4m registered and unregistered refugees from Afghanistan. To recognise those who have been living here for many decades, or were born in this country, is certainly the humane thing to do. Moreover, it is in accordance with the law.

Refugees with roots in Afghanistan have been welcomed in the country from the days of the Soviet invasion in 1979. But they have been simultaneously demonised and made scapegoats for many of the ills in our society, on both the state and societal level, even though those born in Pakistan consider it their home — and know of no other. With no place to call home, and no formal identification or citizenship rights, refugees are often the most vulnerable sections of society. They are kept out of the state apparatus and denied state healthcare and higher education. So while the voluntary repatriation of refugees to their country of origin should be the government’s priority, this should not mean they face harassment, intimidation and threats. Often, refugees are openly derided and spoken of with deep prejudice and contempt by those with power and even those without. But refugees are not parasites or security threats: they are human beings trying to survive callous policies and wars they had no say in deciding. In this globalised world, where markets reign supreme, few can ignore the immense suffering of those who live in Afghanistan, or look the other way instead of reflecting on their own role in creating the instability. Readers should remember the words of British-Somali poet, Warsan Shire: “Nobody leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2019