United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Monday that the world "must recognise that international support for Pakistan has been minimal compared to [its own] national efforts" for Afghan refugees.
He was addressing a conference — jointly organised by the Pakistan government and UN High Commissioner for Refugees — titled 40 years of Afghan Refugees Presence in Pakistan: A New Partnership for Solidarity in Islamabad.
"We have come together to recognise a remarkable story of solidarity and compassion. It is important to do so because it is a story that spans over decades," he said.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, US Special Envoy for Afghan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Afghanistan Second Vice President Sarwar Danish, Prime Minister Imran Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi as well as other ministers and senior officials from around twenty countries were present on the occasion.
"The story of Pakistan and Afghan refugees is a story of compassion to be celebrated for many reasons, one of which is that such compassion is missing from much of the world," said the UN chief.
"For 40 years, the people of Afghanistan have faced many crises, for 40 years the people of Pakistan have responded with solidarity. This generosity now spans across decades and generations and this is the world's largest protracted refugee situation in recorded history.
"This is also a story close to my heart. In my previous life, as the UN human rights commissioner, Pakistan was a familiar destination. During most of my time at the post, Pakistan was the number one refugee-hosting nation in the world.
"For more than three out of every four years since 1979, either Pakistan or Iran have ranked as the top refugee-hosting country. And even though major conflicts have since erupted in other parts of the world and the refugee population has soared, Pakistan is still today the world's second largest refugee hosting country in the world.
"On every visit here, I have been struck by their resilience, exceptional generosity and compassion. I not only saw compassion in words but in deeds.
"The generous spirit is fully inline with what I regard as the best description for refugee protection is found in Surah Al Tawbah of the Holy Quran and I quote: 'And if anyone seeks your protection then grant him protection so therein he can hear the words of God. Then escort him where he can be secure.'
"This protection should be accorded to believers and non-believers alike — in a remarkable example of tolerance, [written] many centuries before the 1951 convention that defines in a modern concept refugees and the protection they deserve.
"I saw that compassion play out in real time in Pakistan and it was grounded in vision. We have seen many innovative policies introduced here: bio-metric registration, access to the national education system, healthcare and inclusion in the economy. And in spite of the many challenges that Pakistan faced, the commencement of these initiatives has made a big difference. Indeed many [of these practices] have been recognised as a global model of good practices.
"Some of these policies have inspired elements of the global impact on refugees. We have been proud to work with you to support Pakistan host communities of Afghan refugees. However, we must recognise that international support for Pakistan has been minimal compared to your own national efforts.
"As we look to the challenges ahead, the global community should step up. As we have marked 40 unbroken years of solidarity, but we also despair at the 40 broken years of hostility.
"The Afghan conflict drags on and on and we see deep impact of the protracted nature of conflict, poverty and forced displacement. We know the solution lies in Afghanistan and I hope the signals of a possible passageway of peace will lead to a better future for the people of Afghanistan.
"I see with us Ambassador Khalilzad and I want to strongly encourage to pursue the way for peace. The Afghan people can count on the United Nations to support the efforts for peace. We don't seek protagonism, we are here only to serve. The Afghan people need and deserve peace and prosperity and full respect of their human rights," Guterres said.
No militant safe havens in Pakistan: PM Imran
Addressing the conference, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that Pakistan is "celebrating" 40 years hosting Afghan refugees. "I say celebrating because there are not many instances in the world where refugees have conducted themselves with such honour and the hosts — in spite of economic challenges especially in the last 20 years — have wonderfully kept their relation with Afghan refugees."
"Let me just point out a pleasant side effect of the situation is that — after watching cricket in Pakistan for so many years — Afghanistan now has an international cricket team," the prime minister, a former World Cup winning cricket captain, said.
"Generosity has nothing to do with the bank balance," the prime minister said while linking Pakistan's hosting of the Afghan refugees with the Muslims of Makkah seeking refuge in Madinah. He said that a lesson Islam teaches us is about brotherhood and uniting human beings.
Responding to an earlier speech by Afghan Second Vice President Sarwar Danish in which he accused Pakistan of allowing the Taliban to recruit new fighters from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran said that there are no militant safe havens in Pakistan.
"That may have been true after 9/11. However, Pakistan does not have any militant sanctuaries now.
“Whatever the situation might have been in the past, right now, I can tell you... there is one thing we want: peace in Afghanistan.”
While Pakistan cannot “completely guarantee” that no Taliban are hiding among the estimated 2.7 million Afghans living in Pakistan, the premier said his government had "done all it can" to prevent attacks in Afghanistan, including by building a border fence.
The prime minister said that Islamophobia became prevalent after 9/11 because terrorism and Islam were equated with each other. "Which led to sufferings of Muslim refugees across the world."
Bringing the UN chief's attention to India and the situation in Indian-occupied Kashmir, Prime Minister Imran said: "Nationalist parties all over the world are now gaining traction by blaming another human community for their problems. And in India, two pieces of legislation actually targeting Muslims have been introduced — which will have future problems for our country, because it could have a huge refugee problem."
'Afghan refugees seek a global commitment to the peace process'
Earlier, Minister for Foreign Affairs Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that Afghan refugees are seeking greater global commitment to the Afghan peace process.
"Even today we continue to host three million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees," Qureshi said while adding that these efforts are based on the Islamic principles of hospitality for compassionate crowds.
"Today, Afghan refugees worldwide are looking for sustainable reintegration in Afghanistan," he added.
"A joint support platform by Pakistan, Iran and the UNHCR was formed with the aim to promote and support refugee return and enhance the capacity of sustainable reintegration of Afghan refugees within their society," Qureshi said.
'For the past 40 years Pakistan has stood with its Afghan brothers'
Addressing the conference earlier, Commissioner Grandi said that while Afghan refugees wait for the opportunity to go back home they deserve the chance to build homes, educate their children and to move freely.
"The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was, for 22 long year, the largest host of Afghan refugees. The recent measure of allowing Afghan refugees to hold bank accounts is a welcome step which will help in better economic integration for them," Grandi said.
"For the last 40 years, as we have heard, the people of Pakistan have stood with their Afghan neighbours. Through the early days of upheaval and displacement, when a third of the population fled the country in just a few years. [Pakistan also stood with the people of Afghanistan] Through moments of hope when they returned back home seeking stability.
"Pakistan has been with Afghanistan through hardships and times of renewed conflict and uncertainty. And through years of efforts to rebuild a fractured nation," he said while concluding that a lot of effort still needs to be made in order to successfully execute the Afghan peace process.