Refugee question

Published October 2, 2023
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

IT has been a bad week for refugees. A debate is brewing on whether the UN’s refugee convention is still fit for purpose. A recent Financial Times poll found that 56 per cent of Americans and 60pc of Britons say immigration is too high. Closer to home, our interim government authorised the deportation of undocumented Afghan refugees. Our policymakers should closely follow the evolving global rhetoric on refugees for it will inevitably affect Pakistan’s global standing.

It is not surprising that refugees are back in the headlines. According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, as of May this year, more than 110 million individuals were forcibly displaced due to conflict, persecution or human rights violations, of which more than 35m were categorised as refugees.

Pakistan is in a double bind. On the one hand, as the preferred destination for over 2m Afghan refugees, it faces international pressure to sign up to the UN refugee convention (Pakistan is not a signatory and thus does not have national legislation guiding refugee and asylum protocols or non-refoulement, which is why it can deport vulnerable Afghans without breaching local or international law). On the other, as a (growing) exporter of refugees, it will face mounting pressure to stem the tide as well as aggressive containment approaches. Our economic, security and foreign policies are not adequately equipped to manage the challenge.

The interim set-up has already faced criticism for its decision to deport undocumented Afghan refugees (Pakistan hosts 1.4m documented Afghan refugees; an equal number of undocumented Afghans are also believed to reside in the country). The refugees complain of harassment and police mishandling, claiming that Pakistani authorities have been slow to approve registrations and visa extension applications. The international community is raising its eyebrow at a country ready to send Afghans, including girls and women, back to a country where human rights violations are extreme.

Pakistan should consider the benefits of welcoming refugees.

Pakistan uses deportations as a way to demonstrate it is cracking down on cross-border militancy, while also hoping it serves as a pressure tactic to elicit more support from Kabul to limit this security threat. This is largely ineffective given that most Afghan refugees are legitimately fleeing hunger, conflict and women’s rights violations.

Pakistan should, instead, consider the benefits of welcoming Afghan refugees, as it has historically done. This would be humane and demonstrate that Pakistan does not condone the extremism and horrific misogyny of the Taliban. It would also position Pakistan well for future international negotiations in which it would want to advocate for Pakistani refugees in other countries to be treated humanely and in accordance with international laws.

As a first step, Pakistan should sign the UN refugee convention, but on the condition that its Western allies provide it with support to comply with non-refoulement requirements (the prohibition on states to return individuals to places where they would be at risk). Indeed, refugee management could become a core aspect of our foreign policy.

Pakistan since 2021 has been resisting setting up a Resettlement Support Centre to enable the US to process resettlement applications of Afghan refugees and relocate them onwards to the US. It argues that an RSC would trigger a flood of Afghan refugees. The US, meanwhile, refuses to handle resettlement cases without an RSC. This is an area for productive engagement between Pakistan and the US: Islamabad can enable Washington to meet its commitments in the wake of its messy Afghanistan exit, while receiving support to manage the influx of refugees in exchange.

Turkey is currently the world’s largest refugee-hosting country, and knowledge sharing of best practices for refugee/ asylum frameworks could be a key element of the growing partnership between the two states. Pakistan could also serve as a valuable interlocutor with allies such as China and the GCC to encourage them to take a greater share of the global refugee population in line with their economic status, an argument that can only be made from the moral high ground, but that would help sustain the relevance of Pakistan’s voice globally, and help secure fair treatment for Pakistani refugees later.

The world is on a difficult trajectory and the number of refugees and asylum seekers will only soar. Our own worsening security and economic environment and sickening levels of religious intolerance mean that Pakistani refugees will be among that count. If we want to safeguard our compatriots, we must change our perspective on the refugee challenge. Let’s not forget the age-old wisdom of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

X (formerly Twitter): @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2023

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