The Afghan refugees in Pakistan | Pakistan Today

The Afghan refugees in Pakistan

  • PM Khan has opened a Pandora’s Box

It was in 2009 that the United Nations refugee agency and the government of Pakistan reached an agreement allowing Afghan refugees to stay in Pakistan till end 2012. It was an agreement clearly stipulating terms and conditions for their stay; making it temporary in nature, stipulating the withdrawal to be gradual but regular and offering international support for this programme. RAHA (Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas programme) aimed at raising $140 million from the international community to fund the refugee hosting countries. The date of full withdrawal of refugees has been repeatedly extended on humanitarian grounds.

Pakistan is neither a signatory to either the 1951 convention that relates to status of refugees nor a party/signatory to the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees. The latest agreement that was signed was the one in 2009. Extension of their stay purely on humanitarian grounds cannot be legally construed as their status having changed from anything but that of being refugees.

The startling and uncalled for statement by PM Khan to grant citizenship to the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan has raised criticism from most quarters.

He stated, “Afghans whose children have been raised and born in Pakistan will be granted citizenship inshallah (God willing) because this is the established practice in countries around the world.” One wishes someone had apprised him of the legal status of the refugee status and how countries around the world had dealt with similar issues. One example is the Somali refugees who sought refuge in Kenya. UNHCR started repatriation of the refugees to Somalia, certifying certain areas to be safe for returning refugees like Kismayo. Although US spent millions of dollars for helping the refugees in the host country, they also nonetheless supported UNHCR’s efforts to repatriate the refugees. In certain cases UNHCR set up camps for the refugees in Somalia itself.

On 17th September 2018, Secretary Pompeo tweeted:

It would have been a mature approach to table the suggestion in the house of parliament instead of coming out swinging with an ill-timed delivery

“The US prioritises a course of action that allows refugees to go home safely and voluntarily when conditions permit – a solution that most refugees prefer, and reflects our commitment to achieving the best humanitarian outcomes, in keeping with our longstanding policy.”

Reportedly this nationality is being offered to Karachi resident refugees only according to a local TV channel. Even if this restrictive area is taken to be correct in application of the new policy, it has raised temperatures not just with the PPP but also with the BNP. The BNP chief shared his disappointment on twitter, “At one hand, Durand Line — the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan– is being fenced and on the other hand Afghan refugees were being provided National Identity Cards and passports.” Baluchis will not welcome this move which in next tranche many extend to their province as well where their population vis a vis influx of Afghans has already reduced. The impact of increase of Afghan refugees is clearly visible in the areas of Pishin, Quetta and Killa Abdullah. According to a detailed report by Dawn newspaper, “The Balochi speaking population appears to have shrunk marginally in 21 districts of Balochistan over a period of 19 years, whereas no growth in population has been recorded in the nine Pashtun-majority districts.”

Leaders of PPP are livid as they feel the high numbers of refugee influx in Sindh has created an imbalance in the province. Taj Haider lashed out at PTI: “Apparently, it is aimed at garnering more support for the PTI in the next elections.” Said Saroop Ijaz of HRW; “Afghan refugees belong to the Pashtun ethnicity and Pashtuns. Thousands of whom live in Karachi, overwhelmingly ‘voted for PTI’ two months ago. Offering more Pashtuns citizenship could cement the party’s hold on the crucial megalopolis.” (The Guardian September 17th, 2018)

The government has not, in making this announcement, kept in mind the different ‘categories’ of refugees within refugees. Roughly 2.7 million Afghan refugees have registered and unregistered people living in Pakistan. Does the magnanimous offer apply to both?

Surprisingly a day before PM Khan’s speech, Shah Mehmood Qureshi Pakistan’s foreign minister returned from Afghanistan and had emphasised in Kabul, the need for a “dignified, sustainable repatriation” of the refugees. It is to be remembered that Shah Mehmood Qureshi is seen as someone close to the powerful military.

Not only has PM Khan unnecessarily opened a Pandora Box where he needs to consolidate his position with his coalition partners instead of alienating them with unilateral decisions but this decision can also place the country at risk. The different shades of security agency moles, sleepers, terrorists, hidden within the folds of refugees will be legalised for good. Or is there a system for screening each refugee?

It would have been a mature approach to table the suggestion in the house of parliament instead of coming out swinging with an ill-timed delivery. The government needs to focus on the needs of the country and the pressing issues. It is pointless over burdening the nation with more people where we cannot even feed our own, whose status is already legally defined and who pose a threat to the people of the country who will be reduced to a minority in their own province.

This is definitely not smart governance.

Yasmeen Aftab Ali

The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: [email protected] and tweets at @yasmeen_9.