Prime minister Imran Khan ‘s announcement at Karachi to grant citizenship to Afghan refugees came across as relief for many, particularly young Afghans who have grown up in Pakistan. But it also caused some consternation among many, and ruffled up quite a few, particularly nationalist, narrow-minded political elements. The detractors also include a PTI ally, a nationlist sardar from Balochistan; should we declare Pakistan an orphanage for all and sundry, he quipped at a press conference. His fear; naturalizing Afghans would render Baloch natives into a minority. This way he resonated apprehensions that former chief minister Dr.Malik Baloch had expressed in opposition to the national census. I opposed the census because this might reduce the Baloch into a minority, Baloch had told us at a private gathering. This argument ignores basic principles of demographic dynamics, which have seen natives getting outnumbered by immigrants in many parts of the world, something manifest in the fact that about a dozen governors in the USA are of Indian or other origins. Several dozen MPs in the UK House of Commons or the German parliament – the Bundestag – for example are also of Turkic or Arabic or Slavic origin. But these facts have generally not obstructed the naturalization process in these countries.
Many opposition politicians blurted out similar parochial views, some for genuine reasons in their own right and others only for the sake of running down the prime minister on an issue that has lingered on just because no government ever bothered to rationally address it according to globally practiced norms on refugees and migration.
They overlook – advertently or otherwise – a basic practice in most parts of the world; naturalization by birth or through extended stay of aliens/refugees. The United States, for instance, naturalized 1.1 million foreigners in 2015 alone. In 2016, about 4.8 million Europeans lived in the United States, accounting for 11 percent of the roughly 44 million U.S. immigrants. Europe, too, has accepted several million since the Iraq/Syrian/Libyan crisis in the last decade or so.
And mind you, almost all of these immigrants came as helpless refugees, and are meanwhile either productive residents or being put through skills/language orientation courses.
In Pakistan’s case, we are talking about 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, nearly a million Afghan citizenship card holders and hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans scattered all over Pakistan in industry and agriculture.
Over 60 percent of these Afghans are under 30 years of age, either born or raised in Pakistan, according to UNHCR. The majority of them are somehow already part of the national economy one way or the other. Lots of them are running their own businesses – trading or offering services. In fact the bulk of government and private sector officials in Afghanistan government, too, have been graduates from Pakistan, people who opted to return to their country despite heavy odds, and the continued conflict.
The furore over PM’s announcement caused the government to row back on the plans and now intends to develop consensus on the issue through a parliamentary panel.
A lot of sane voices such as noted academic Dr.Rasool Bux Raees, have spoken out in favour of a balanced and consensus approach to determine the fate of Afghans living in Pakistan.
It is certainly note the fault of Afghan refugees if the state of Pakistan – driven mostly be ad hocism – failed in devising a long-term framework for refugees living here.
The challenges that Pakistan faces – negative perceptions abroad, loss of goodwill in Afghanistan, largely because of the stories associated with the treatment/harassment of their refugees here – requires an extremely cautious and open-minded approach on the Afghans and other foreigners living here – documented or otherwise.
Prime Minister Khan should not budge on his original statement on the Afghan refugees but his team must go for an inclusive approach and convince all stakeholders – with logic and ground realities – that it is only in Pakistan’s interest to naturalize all foreigners living here, at least an unlimited permanent residence if not nationality. This will only do good to Pakistan itself and will also help revive trading relations with Afghanistan. A lot of Afghan traders have shifted their trans-border trade only because of the uncertainty surrounding their status, and at times vilification that their countrymen at times face here.
Why not deeply deliberate and embrace some globally practiced norms to naturalize those born here and take them off the security radar. Don’t allow petty talk anchored in “ifs” and “buts” to deny the country of a chance of turning at least a million and half foreigners into goodwill ambassadors for the country. This will neutralize much of the negative story that accompanies and sullies Pakistan’s image abroad.