Taliban govt will give peace to Afghans despite challenges, say experts at webinar

Published September 1, 2021
A screenshot from the event.—White Star
A screenshot from the event.—White Star

KARACHI: At a webinar on ‘Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Past, Present and Future’, organised by the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA) on Tuesday, experts said Pakistan will not be receiving as many Afghan refugees as it did in the past and so we should be patient and accommodating in the interest of maintaining good relations with the Afghan people in current times.

Pakistan has hosted one of the world’s largest refugee populations for over four decades. In successive waves, refugees from Afghanistan have sought shelter inside Pakistan which, over the years, has hosted millions of Afghan refugees. It is estimated that three million Afghan refugees still reside in Pakistan but according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, only 1.4m are registered.

Former ambassador of Pakistan to Afghanistan and former chief commissioner for Afghan refugees in Islamabad Rustam Shah Mohmand provided an analytical overview of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

“The upheaval in Afghanistan resulted in the pouring in of thousands of refugees in Pakistan and Iran in the 1980s. At the time, there was much support for them. And the military regime in Pakistan also used it as an opportunity to legalise its rule,” Ambassador Mohmand said.

‘We shouldn’t expect more than a few thousand refugees from Afghanistan unless there is civil war there’

“It was a defining moment in Pakistan’s history as it extended help to these people in need on the basis of mutual faith and good neighbourly relations. There was no hostility, no ill will, no problems created by the settling of Afghan refugees here. The UN and various NGOs also came in big way and helped in setting up camps, schools, dispensaries, etc. There were new roads constructed, there was food security and water supply ensured for these people as they were systematically registered. There was mutual respect between the communities which created peaceful coexistence. Then as conditions in Afghanistan improved, many also repatriated,” he said.

“Now in the wake of new developments of the last three to four weeks, there are reports that hundreds of thousands more may cross over to Pakistan. But I think that it may not happen as danger of civil war in Afghanistan does not exist. There is also a fatigue syndrome as people in Afghanistan are tired of conflict. They want peace and the Taliban government will give peace despite the challenges,” he said.

“Some Afghans might try to come into Pakistan as they have relatives here and others might come due to poverty and unemployment. There needs [to be] support from the international community, too, due to this,” he said.

“If Pakistan at this time closes its border for the refugees, it will counter the goodwill of the Afghan people, which will then be eroded in this time of crisis. The Afghans will also not forget and forgive. Therefore, I say that if we looked after so many Afghan refugees in the past, we can look after some more this time around, too,” he said.

An analyst and former executive director, Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad, Dr Saba Gul Khattak, spoke about the impact of Afghan refugees on the economy and social life in Pakistan.

“To this day, despite having hosted millions of refugees we still don’t have a formal policy for refugees. We have not signed a refugee convention nor protocol and the refugees in Pakistan have been living in unpredictable climates. Pakistan’s attitude towards them has also changed in various shifts in governments both here and in Afghanistan. Then not all Afghan refugees are one and the same. There have been different kinds in different regimes, eg, in Najeebullah’s time they were educated and urban,” she said.

She added that there have not been many studies to look at the impact of refugees. “But one thing that can be seen is that the construction sector has suffered in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan because these refugees were working in our construction sector. And in doing so there were two kinds of resentment felt by both the Pakistani and Afghan workers. The Pakistanis were unhappy because the Afghans were taking away work from them as a cheaper alternative. And the Afghans working here as labourers were also unhappy because they would not be paid as much as the Pakistani labourers,” she said. “Still, there was a vacuum felt in our construction industry as the Afghans had started going back to their country,” she added.

“Overall I also feel that these refugees bring in money, too. Pakistan was generous in hosting refugees and because of them there was aid and funding from other countries coming here. Then when the funding lessened or stopped Pakistan too helped. The only part where Pakistan has not done well was in foreign policy, which gets lost in larger context of politics. Pakistan did not get the recognition that it should have got for helping the Afghan refugees. Instead it ended up being the bad boy in the eyes of the West,” she said.

Former ambassador of Pakistan to Afghanistan and former high commissioner to India Aziz Ahmad Khan spoke about the future of Afghan refugees in Pakistan after the Taliban’s takeover. “This is the second incarnation of the Taliban,” he said.

“I also feel that one should not expect a big influx of refugees this time. This time though we are not really being hostile to them there is a feeling that it is about time that they should return to their country. Also when they come to your country they compete for jobs as they also enter the labour industry, where they are willing to work for less. And in Pakistan as it is we have our own labour problems.

“Still, we shouldn’t expect more than a few thousand refugees from Afghanistan this time unless there is civil war there. Secondly, the way the Taliban have acted they look more sophisticated and realistic in their dealings with the world. They have been constantly reassuring the Afghans of peace. They are no longer against photographing, they have shown that women can work, too. They need all people who have certain expertise to work for their country. They would like them to stay. So things as they appear look settled and they might move in a disciplined manner,” he said.

“Of course, the difficulties would be there if assistance though foreign funds [doesn’t] come in,” he added.

Earlier, PIIA chairperson Dr Masuma Hasan explained that right now there is a general feeling of fear in Afghanistan as it still remains to be seen how much control the Taliban will exercise. Meanwhile, the UN has asked Afghanistan’s neighbours to keep their borders open for refugees. Even though Pakistan has fenced all of its border with Afghanistan and has the army posted on its frontier, it is still accepting Afghan refugees on humanitarian grounds as well as under international pressure and the dynamics of the situation.

Some 40,000 evacuees will transit through Pakistan, but they are still the high-profile visitors and not common refugees, more of whom might want to also come here.

Published in Dawn, September 1st, 2021

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