Pakistan saw massive influx of refugees from Afghanistan during the 1980s. They came through the border gateways and informal crossing points on the Durand Line. The registered figure of Afghan refugees in Pakistan at that time was 3.2 million. As time passed by, their population grew to reach the 5 million mark. Currently, there are about 1.5 million registered and 1.7 million unregistered Afghans still living on the Pakistani soil in different camps and villages.
Pakistani government and public welcomed the Afghan refugees with open arms. The government settled them mainly on the lands bordering Afghanistan, owned by the local community, and the locals provided them with basic needs. At that time, the Afghans getting into Pakistan were in dire need of help. Their bodies were shrunk due to hunger, and their eyes sunk due to sleeplessness. Long journey on foot, and the hardships they faced, had made them victims of various diseases. Women, children and the elderly were just asking for mercy. The case of today’s Syrian refugees is a reflection of those circumstances which Afghans saw in the 80s.
The Government of Pakistan took several measures to ensure the provision of safety, shelter and basic amenities ro the Afghan refugees. The government set up more than five hundred schools for the Afghan children. There were more than 550 hospitals exclusively made for the Afghan refugees in their respective camp areas or villages. Not even a single Afghan child was denied its basic right to education in Pakistan and not a single person died of starvation inside the refugee camps.
The cooperation between local population and the Afghan refugees residing on the other side of the road was unique. There has been no single organized or planned clash or conflict between the two populaces. The level of trust rose to such a level that Pakistanis and Afghan refugees shared businesses with each other. The carpet-weaving industry in Peshawar saw huge influx of skilled labour in the form of Afghan youth. The climax of this trust was intermarriages between Pakistanis and Afghan refugees.
Almost 38 years have passed since they arrived in Pakistan as refugees. The policies of the successive governments during this period reflected an attitude of cooperation. No one was discriminated on the grounds of race, colour, religion, caste or creed. Instead they were facilitated to live with their families, tribes and politically like-minded people in their camps. Camps were specified for different political parties to ensure peace and harmony. The cooperation and services of international humanitarian organizations, especially the UN agency for refugees, UNHCR, were commendable.
Nevertheless, soon after the withdrawal of Nato forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan started feeling the burden of Afghan refugees. The fateful and tragic incident of APS Peshawar added another impetus to Pakistan’s efforts for repatriation of Afghan refugees at the earliest. No doubt, Afghans must be repatriated to their home country as early as possible but the way they are repatriated and forced to leave their properties and relationships of past 38 years on a very short notice does not favour Pakistan that has hosted them for the last four decades.
The way police and other law-enforcement agencies treat them is fast eroding the goodwill found in the hearts of Afghan refugees for Pakistan. Persecution may create a sense of revenge in them. The third generation of Afghan refugees, which considers Pakistan its home, may turn around and after forced repatriation may fall into the hands of Pakistan’s enemies who’re active inside Afghanistan. No one is pure soul and there are certain mischievous people among the Afghan refugees too. Such type of people should be singled out and be punished for their crimes and deeds. But to target the whole community on such grounds is neither a prudent option nor will it be helpful to anyone.
On the other hand, Afghanistan also, at present, is not completely a secure and peaceful country; rather it is marching on the road to instability. The reports suggest that 40 percent of Afghanistan is out of Kabul administration’s control. The internal rifts are increasing day by day and new alliances are being formed inside government circles. About 24 provinces are facing insurgencies. Internal displacement inside Afghanistan due to insurgencies has also increased to staggering numbers. Taliban are on the front foot and are gaining more and more territories. Likewise, Islamic State (IS), or Daesh, is active in at least 3 provinces. Political parties and warlords are having clashes in different areas. The Afghan National Army is facing several difficulties; ranging from the crisis of desertion to the lack of financial resources, ammunition and backup support.
It is encouraging that international community and Afghan government have taken several initiatives to restore peace in Afghanistan. One big achievement of the Afghan government in this regard is its deal with resistance leader and Hizb-e-Islami chief, Engr. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Similarly, Russia, China, Pakistan, USA and Afghan government are also looking for more options to streamline Taliban and other resistance forces.
In the backdrop of these facts, the situation does not seem favourable for the repatriation of Afghans to their country. No one wants to be a refugee throughout his life. There are certain and severe problems faced by them; the most important being the crisis of identity. No one wants to be called with the name of a refugee but the circumstances compel them to bear such difficulties.
Pakistan has done a lot for refugees, and the whole world acknowledges the sacrifices rendered by Pakistan and its people. Certainly, a goodwill and soft corner is there in the hearts of Afghan refugees. This is the real ‘strategic depth’ for Pakistan. Forced repatriation of, and humiliating behaviour with, the Afghan refugees can be disastrous. To lose this goodwill, soft corner and strategic depth through flawed policies will be a monumental blunder on the part of our policymakers. It will not only wash away Pakistan’s sacrifices that span four decades but will also increase the acrimony in the Kabul administration and other stakeholders in Afghanistan who are working against Pakistan.
The only beneficiary of such policies will be Pakistan’s eastern neighbour and other international agencies who want to use Afghanistan against Pakistan as a tool to fulfil their nefarious designs. The process has already begun and instead of curbing and countering it, Pakistan itself is adding fuel to the fire through unrealistic policies. Pakistan needs to revise its policy of dealing with the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Afghans should be treated as an asset in Pakistan’s hands.
1. Pakistan saw massive influx of refugees from Afghanistan during 1980s.
2. Currently, there are about 1.5 million registered and 1.7 unregistered Afghans still living on Pakistani soil.
3. The country set up more than five hundred schools for the Afghan children. There were more than 550 hospitals exclusively made for the Afghan refugees.
4. 40 percent of Afghanistan is out of Kabul administration’s control.
5. Taliban are on the front foot and are gaining more and more territories.
6. Russia, China, Pakistan, USA and Afghan government are also looking for more options to streamline Taliban and other resistance forces.
7. Forced repatriation of, and humiliating behaviour with, the Afghan refugees can be disastrous for Pakistan.
8. The only beneficiary of such policies will be Pakistan’s eastern neighbor and other international agencies.