Dealing with Afghan refugees
By Imtiaz Gul
Express Tribune Jan 14, 2015
In Paris on January 11, some 40 heads of states and governments stood among tens of thousands as a mark of solidarity with the journalists and staff of Charlie Hebdo. In Peshawar, on January 12, it was only the Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, personally greeting the children back to the Army Public School (APS). Only a day earlier, the army had organised a visit to Peshawar for foreign ambassadors to see the APS students at a hospital.
This chain of events clearly betrayed the divide between an embattled military that continues to simultaneously fight terror and insurgency in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), Fata, Balochistan and crime in Karachi, and the civilian leaders, who remain entangled in settling petty political scores, personal pursuits of wealth and also keep raising security walls around them. This is Pakistan’s sad reality: the ruling elite is pre-occupied with personal agendas and is disconnected from the grassroots issues of daily life.
Take the 20-point National Action Plan against terrorism, for instance; it promised formulation of a comprehensive policy to deal with the issue of Afghan refugees, beginning with the registration of all unregistered illegal refugees and eventually restricting them, Afghans in particular, to camps. This singles out Afghans as the possible drivers of violence and terrorism.
The UNHCR speaks of roughly 1.7 million refugees all over Pakistan, most of them in Fata and K-P. At least 50 per cent of refugee families are scattered all around the greater Peshawar region. Most live in clusters of rented houses and countless are involved in small, medium and large businesses, such as trade, transport, cottage industries, construction and agro-farming. The UN runs more than 100 schools for refugee children, particularly those living in or around designated refugee camps. Local partners help in improving access to social sector services provided by the UNHCR. Afghan children are not only restricted to dedicated schools. They are present in all sorts of educational institutions, both private and public. Similarly, countless Afghans are entrenched in the country’s social fabric through marital relationships and friendships.
Consequently, the new instructions by the federal and provincial governments have thrown up multiple problems for nearly all Afghans living in Pakistan. Afghan refugees holding proof of registration cards issued by NADRA could stay on in the country till December 2015. But the police in K-P and political administrations in Fata have expedited the campaign against unregistered Afghans, who are being deported to their country under the Foreigners Act. More than 2,000 illegal Afghans have already been deported since the APS attack. Similarly, the Fata secretariat has instructed the Khyber and South Waziristan agencies’ officials to expel Afghan nationals from their properties and deal with unregistered Afghans involved in illegal activities, crimes or terrorism strictly. Police and intelligence operators are involved in status verification campaigns across K-P and Balochistan.
Five major questions arise out of the current push against Afghans living in Pakistan. Firstly, is it practically possible to restrict Afghan refugees to refugee camps only? Secondly, can Pakistan throw them out without their consent, which is something that could be globally sensitive? Thirdly, will the international community, including the UNHCR, allow forced repatriation in disregard of the Geneva Convention on Refugees; will the government disrupt all Afghan-run or Afghan-owned businesses and throw their children out from educational institutions by the end of the year? Fourth, how will the government deal with those in possession of Pakistani NICs and passports? A lot of them have either become naturalised citizens or are in possession of Pakistani passports acquired illegally. And despite digitalisation, agents are still able to manipulate NADRA systems after greasing palms of officials. Fifth, can Pakistan afford to vitiate the newborn goodwill with Kabul through a witch-hunt of Afghans living here?
In this age, stories — sometimes even half-truths — travel fast across the border and can poison minds and trigger tensions and hatred. Pakistani leaders need to move with wisdom, calculation and dispassionate far-sightedness to regain the confidence of the world, including that of Afghans.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies