ACCORDING to a UN report released to mark World Refugee Day, observed on Monday, four-fifths of the world's 15.4 million refugees live in “poor countries”, where there is little chance of their gaining citizenship and having access to decent jobs. As AntÃ³nio Guterres, the chief of the UN refugee agency put it, “it's poorer countries that are left having to pick up the burden” of refugees. For over three decades, Pakistan has known this burden only too well. Ever since Soviet tanks first rolled into Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan refugees have been pouring into Pakistan (with a lesser number heading to Iran) fleeing conflict, which has continued unabated since the Soviets left, as the Mujahideen, the Taliban and the West-backed Karzai regime have all struggled for control of Afghanistan. At one time in the late 1980s, there were said to be over three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Though many have returned to their homeland, about 1.7 million still remain here, according to the UNHCR.
In many respects Afghan refugees in Pakistan have been forgotten by the world, with this country left to deal with the issue on its own, despite its myriad difficulties and limitations. The presence of such a large number of refugees has had a particularly negative effect on Pakistan's economy and society. Also, while a small minority of Afghan refugees have prospered, the vast majority live in dire poverty. It should be remembered that along with other limiting factors, Pakistan itself has to support a significant population of internally displaced persons, forced out of their homes by military operations in the northwest as well as last year's record floods. Hence while the UN's repatriation efforts are commendable, the world community needs to renew its focus on helping Pakistan return Afghan refugees to their homeland — for this security and economic opportunity in Afghanistan is a prerequisite. Or it can help resettle them in countries financially in a better position to support them. These efforts are essential to give the refugees a chance to rebuild their lives with dignity as well as to take some of the pressure off Pakistan.