TODAY marks World Refugee Day. According to the United Nations, there are 71m people around the world with refugee status — the highest ever recorded. From Syria to South Sudan, men, women and children are forced to flee their homes and seek shelter in other nations due to conditions out of their control: war, genocide, discrimination, and large-scale economic and environmental catastrophes. Pakistan hosts one of the world’s largest refugee populations, as Afghans escaping war and tyranny have been entering the country for the past 40 years. Many have made Pakistan their home, and their children and grandchildren born here know of no other. Recently, the Tripartite Commission comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reinforced its commitment to upholding the principle of voluntary repatriation in conditions of safety and dignity. Unfortunately, the reality of how repatriation works on the ground is often the opposite and does not run on principles. There have been reports of harassment, coercion and raids on Afghans when these announcements are made. Once welcomed into the country in large numbers in the name of Muslim brotherhood, Afghans have increasingly found themselves being seen as visitors who have outstayed their welcome. They are the target of suspicion and resentment, and viewed as a burden on the resources of a struggling nation and economy. Moreover, and more worryingly, they are seen as a security threat and treated as such. Like many refugees around the world, they are often made scapegoats for the nation’s problems and are unable to shake off their ‘alien’ status in the eyes of both state and society. While it is important for Afghan refugees to return to their homeland, it is even more crucial that their repatriation is on a voluntary basis and the process supported and accommodated every step of the way by the Afghan government.
The international community and world powers must also pitch in to offer assistance, as many of the problems faced by Afghanistan are a direct result of continuous interference by other nations. To its credit, the PTI government has always displayed a sympathetic approach and a commendable degree of humanitarianism when it comes to the plight of Afghan refugees. In February, for instance, Afghan refugees were allowed to open bank accounts and participate in the formal economy for the first time — at least in theory. More steps are needed to ensure their inclusion.
Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2019