WITH a peaceful settlement to the Afghan conflict looking increasingly remote, there are valid fears of a new refugee crisis. And as always, it will be Afghanistan’s neighbours — particularly Pakistan — who will have to bear the brunt of this crisis, unwilling and unready as they may be. However, while Pakistan should do all it can to help Afghan civilians fleeing conflict in their homeland, ‘solutions’ should not be thrust on this country. In this regard, a senior US State Department official recently told journalists in Washington that “it’ll be important [for Pakistan] that their borders remain open”. The comment comes on the heels of a statement by Pakistan’s national security adviser who, during his trip to the US, reiterated state policy when he said that arrangements for Afghan civilians fleeing conflict should be made “inside their country”. Moreover, the US has also suggested that Turkey play host to Afghan refuge-seekers. Ankara has not reacted positively, with Turkish officials saying the US plan to use third countries will spark a “great migration crisis” while also rejecting the “irresponsible decision taken by the United States without consulting our country”.
Indeed, while all states, including Afghanistan’s neighbours, should play their part to prevent a fresh humanitarian catastrophe in the shape of a refugee crisis, foreign parties should not be dictating terms. The US, which invaded Afghanistan two decades ago, cannot shift the burden of its failed nation-building adventures onto others. All states must cooperate to house, feed and care for Afghan refugees. In this regard, Pakistan’s position is fair: after hosting millions of Afghan refugees for decades, it is in no position to allow any more in its cities. The best solution, as the government has highlighted, are safe zones along the border where non-combatants can be housed away from violence. If this is not possible, camps can be created just across the border in Pakistan to prevent a fresh influx towards the cities. Moreover, as Pakistan is not responsible for Afghanistan’s crisis — foreign states and Afghanistan’s political class and warlords share that dubious distinction — it should not be left in the lurch when refugees do come. Foreign powers, particularly the US and its Nato allies, must contribute materially to the well-being of Afghans fleeing conflict, under the aegis of the UN.
Nevertheless, while Pakistan is in no position to support a large refugee population, Afghan civilians, if and when they come, should be treated humanely. It is easy to target such vulnerable populations with xenophobic vitriol, but it should be remembered that the mess in Afghanistan is not the handiwork of the common Afghan. Powerful forces have toyed with that country for decades, while refugees fleeing conflict from any war zone — Iraq, Syria etc — must be dealt with by the international community with respect and compassion.
Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2021