KARACHI: When Meherullah turned 18, he wanted to have his own bank account, ATM card and a cheque book. However, when he approached a bank he was told that it would not be possible as he was an Afghan refugee.
Last month, the 26-year-old carpet dealer finally used an ATM card for the first time.
Like millions of Afghan refugees who have been residing in Pakistan for decades, Meherullah and his family were unable to open a bank account for years. However, back in February the federal government took some steps to change this. After reviewing progress made by different government departments to curb money laundering, Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted that he had issued instructions that Afghan refugees who were registered could open bank accounts and participate in the formal economy of the country.
A few days later, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) issued a statement claiming that Proof of Registration (PoR) cards would be accepted by banks as a valid identity document in order to open an account. It added that the biometric verification service for Afghan refugees holding PoR cards would work similar to the CNIC biometric verification system. All the refugees needed to attach with their forms were utility bills, and in some cases a reference or rent deed.
The SBP spokesperson, Abid Qamar, said that this was the first time banking services would be offered to Afghan refugees in Pakistan. “This will also help us keep a record of transactions,” he added.
However, there is a downside.
In October 2018, a notification issued by the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions said that PoR cards would only be valid till June 30. This means that if the PoR’s validity is not extended, these newly opened accounts might get blocked.
“They usually extend the date a few days before the deadline … that’s how it has always been done,” said a refugee who has lived in Karachi for years.
Meherullah and his brother said that all they had to give along with their bank form and PoR was a utility bill, “which I can now pay for by myself”, he added.
Talking about his family’s move to Pakistan, the young man said that his father moved here with nothing. “He worked his way up and now has three carpet shops in Sohrab Goth,” he said, adding that none of the shops, however, were in his father’s name.
“The business and shops are in the name of a friend who has a Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC). Till April, this friend of my father’s used to do all our transactions. Now that I have my own bank account I can do this myself but this man’s name is still on our deed because while the PoR allows us to open an account, it does not give us the right to own property or even a car.”
For many Afghan refugees, this has been a life-altering decision.
Sixty-five-year-old Gul Ahmed came to Karachi during the influx of Afghan refugees in the 1970s.
“I would often always ask friends or relatives who had a Pakistani identity card to help me and my family with financial transactions or bills. There was never a record of any transactions which made things difficult for us in terms of business,” he said while speaking to Dawn at the United Nation’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in Karachi.
Waheeda, a young girl who moved to Pakistan in the 1990s with her family, said that having a bank account has been a great relief for her and her sister.
“I used to study at a university in Karachi and it was always such a hassle to get the pay order made. I would have to ask friends or acquaintances to help me out every term. Then when I started working, it somehow didn’t make sense that instead of depositing my salary in an account like everyone else, I would receive mine in cash. This was also problematic given Karachi’s law and order situation. I once got mugged and lost Rs20,000 — my salary for the month,” she explained.
According to UNHCR spokesperson Qaiser Khan Afridi, Pakistan has generously hosted millions of Afghan refugees for decades and should be applauded for this decision to allow Afghan refugees to open bank accounts.
“This is indeed an important step in support of Afghan refugees who will formally contribute and boost the local economy. Opening bank accounts will allow refugees’ and their extended family members who live abroad to send remittances through formal banking channels, which will help increase the foreign exchange reserves in Pakistan,” he said.
“The UNHCR will continue to work closely with the Pakistani government for the betterment of Afghan refugees,” he added.
Pakistan hosts around 1.4 million Afghan refugees with 63,000 Afghan refugees in Sindh, mostly in Karachi, who have PoR cards.
“Some 4.4 million refugees have gone back to Afghanistan under the UNHCR-supported voluntary repatriation programme. The government’s cabinet had extended the stay of Afghan refugees until June 30 and asked the authorities concerned to devise a comprehensive policy,” he said.
Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2019