AS Afghan Taliban fighters gain ground next door, the possibility of a mass exodus of Afghan civilians is becoming increasingly likely. Thousands of ordinary Afghans are leaving their homes as the conflict intensifies. Tragic memories of the Soviet-era war in Afghanistan are still fresh in the minds of the elderly Afghans who bore the brunt. Many left their country and arrived in Pakistan.
A sizable number of Afghans were accommodated in refugee camps set up and managed by the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and other supporting organisations. Hundreds of such camps were set up primarily in KP from where many Afghans came to various cities and towns, mainly Peshawar and Karachi. At one point, Pakistan hosted over 4.5 million Afghan refugees. According to the UNHCR, 1.4m still live in Pakistan with over 300,000 in Karachi alone.
As Afghanistan braces for further displacement, there are concerns of migration to neighbouring countries. The interior minister has said that Pakistan will follow the ‘Iran model’ in dealing with refugees. This model restricts refugees to camps in border locations and prevents them from entering cities and towns. Stricter border control is being discussed.
If Afghan refugees arrive in Pakistan, it will be very difficult to keep them in camps. Past experience shows that a number of them have social connections and will opt to live in Karachi. There are exclusive informal settlements where Afghans have continued to live for about four decades. The Afghan basti (settlement) along Sohrab Goth is an example. Afghans with meagre resources make it to such informal settlements that are spread across various locations in the city. Better-off Afghans are found living in Gulshan-i-Iqbal, the upmarket neighbourhoods of District East and even affluent neighbourhoods like Defence.
Refugees from Afghanistan will likely be drawn to Karachi.
Migration to Karachi is already high. The results of the 2017 census show that Pakhtuns constitute 15 per cent of the total population — one of the highest concentrations outside KP and Balochistan. With language and sociocultural affinities, Afghans generally find the Pashto-speaking population a huge social resource in the metropolis.
Research shows that while the UNHCR made possible the repatriation of Afghan refugees during better times, their footprint remains in Karachi where many young Afghans were born and raised. They never returned to Afghanistan and see Karachi as their future. Some well-connected Afghans have even acquired CNICs making them ‘citizens’. While our agencies officially treat Afghans as foreign nationals, according them refugee status, the reality of their lives is different. Certain political parties also support citizenship rights for Afghans born and living in this country.
Karachi is thus an attractive city for newcomers. Most of Karachi’s livelihood opportunities lie in the informal sector. There are many sectors where those of Afghan origin dominate. Waste management and enterprises related to trash collection, disposal and resource recovery have a sizable Afghan presence. These energetic entrepreneurs have upgraded their capacity. From isolated waste pickers and scavengers, they now run well-managed collection services, sorting and separation yards etc. They have also invested capital to acquire vehicles and rented premises to run their business. Various informal settlements in Karachi have these enterprises in abundance. At the other end, illegal activities, such as drug trafficking and gun-running, also absorb some sections of displaced people.
The challenges for the provincial administration, that acts in lieu of a local government, are considerable. How does the administration intend to accommodate new Afghan refugees? Do we have a city-level plan to extend urban basic services including healthcare and education? Has a coordination mechanism been worked out with the centre to deal with the matter? Unfortunately, although the migrant population adds substantial numbers to the city every year, there is no response with respect to housing and community facilities by the administration.
Parties that consider Karachi their traditional political bastion are averse to accommodating migrants, including Afghans. For them, the new population aligns itself with their political opponents. Such beliefs only deepen social fault lines. A rational approach to dealing with this impending situation is to begin a dialogue with the centre and prepare for the expected inflow of refugees.
Karachi already lacks a city plan to guide development and management trends. With more people — including Afghans — knocking at its door, an effective rehabilitation strategy is needed. The federal government can revitalise the National Alien Registration Authority to streamline the presence of non-citizens. A human crisis can be averted if proper plans and guidelines are in place and if there is no further delay.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2021