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Afghans should be treated with dignity



By Imtiaz Gul

Express Tribune, August 17, 2016


“Welcome to this gathering in nice weather but heated environment.” This is how Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the embattled Afghan Chief Executive, welcomed his supporters in Kabul on Monday. With this he encapsulated the heightened tensions unleashed by his tug of war with President Ashraf Ghani over delays in constitutional reforms and political appointments. The National Unity Government (NUG), as described on Sunday by the mass circulation daily, The Afghanistan Times, is “fractured” and needs to be dissolved. But, as the ruling elite battle it out for self-preservation, fear, confusion and uncertainty seem to have gripped the common Afghan — Taliban militants, on the one hand, continue to challenge the government’s writ even in northern territories. Increasingly difficult conditions for Afghans in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are stoking more apprehensions, on the other.

A number of people I bumped into in Kabul were visibly upset over the recent anti-refugee drive, unsure how their relatives — mostly settled there or even born in Pakistan — would deal with a country which is already reeling from uncertainty, rampant corruption, terrorism and a feuding political elite. The government narrative, following a few high-profile terrorist attacks and another six month’s extension given to them, has tended to conflate terrorism and Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the decision to forcibly push the Afghans out of Pakistan has entailed serious consequences. One of them has been the harassment, extortion and blackmail by the police and other arms of the security apparatus in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Balochistan. Similar complaints have been heard come from Islamabad. In the name of verification of documents, police and security officials have found yet another way to mint money off hapless Afghans, many of them well settled. Police higher-ups in K-P have denied such high-handedness but a lot is happening under their noses and most Afghans tend not to report excesses for fear of more reprisals.

The voices raised in the K-P Assembly last week against forced repatriation and the warning by JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman do warn of the consequences of such a move. “The move is likely to instill hate among Afghans against Pakistan … forced repatriation of Afghan refugees will not benefit our cause, except making the Afghans an enemy of Pakistan,” Fazlur Rehman told a gathering.

Often, people in positions of responsibility — officials and media personalities — speak of Pakistan’s “investment in refugees”, hospitality for 35 years and “benevolence” when arguing that Afghans be repatriated. Such talk has, in fact, trivialised an extremely complex issue at the cost of Pakistan’s already battered image in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Of course, Pakistan provided the Afghan refugees open spaces — to live, work and study. No doubt, this stunted socioeconomic development, particularly in K-P and Balochistan. But all this happened under peculiar circumstances, under the government’s accord with the international community in the context of bonds dating back centuries.

The refugee issue is an almost unavoidable one in conversations in Kabul these days for obvious reasons. Almost everyone you come across has a direct or indirect family or business connection in Pakistan. Countless Afghans have developed social relations, set up businesses and acquired properties in K-P and Balochistan. And they are obviously worried about what might happen to their relatives in Pakistan. Stories of harassment keep trickling in and become part of the conversation here. Looking at the extremely negative consequences the decision on repatriation has generated, both the federal and provincial governments need to devise a whole-of-government approach to deal with the Afghans who deserve to be treated with dignity. They must warn all law-enforcement agencies against any high-handed handling of Afghans and punish those found mistreating them. By treating them with compassion and respect, we can turn these nearly two million Afghans into our goodwill ambassadors instead of sending most of them back embittered and humiliated. Treating them with kindness is the best investment we can make for the image of Pakistan.

Parliamentarians in particular can play their part through liason with law enforcement agencies, whose officials must be subjected to strict accountability for misbehaviour. An honourable, voluntary return of Afghans is perhaps the best opportunity for Pakistan to regain the socio-political space it has lost in Afghanistan.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk