Parked for Good? Afghan Repatriation
Pakistan finally appears determined to ensure the repatriation of the Afghan refugees to their homeland. However, it won’t be an easy task, considering the long-drawn-out stay of the Afghans in the country and the feelings of ill-will that such an action would generate.
Pakistani officials have made it clear there will not be any further extensions beyond December 2016 for the almost 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. This figure is considered credible because the headcount was done largely by the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) with the cooperation of the Pakistani authorities.
As for the unregistered Afghan refugees, there is no way of finding out the exact numbers. They are estimated at more than a million spread all over Pakistan, but this figure could be wide off the mark. It is the weakness of Pakistan’s institutions that these people managed to enter the country illegally and could not be registered in all these years. It is obvious that the unregistered Afghan refugees are staying illegally in Pakistan and could be deported whenever they are found and caught. In fact, they are also the most vulnerable to harassment and abuse at the hands of unscrupulous personnel of the law-enforcement agencies.
This is the second six-month extension granted by the Pakistan government to the Afghan refugees. The second, three-year trilateral agreement between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UNHCR, legalising the stay of Afghan refugees in Pakistan by providing them proof of registration cards, ended in December 2015. The Afghan government wanted another similar agreement for at least two more years, citing lack of resources for resettling the refugees in case they were repatriated at this stage to Afghanistan. The UNHCR, too, would have liked Pakistan to keep the Afghan refugees for some more time. Pakistan obliged, but not fully, by extending the stay of the Afghan refugees for six more months until June 2016, instead of agreeing to ink another three-year agreement.
This is how Pakistan is building up pressure on the Afghan government to prepare for return of Afghan refugees, instead of remaining oblivious of its responsibility to its displaced nationals as it has done all these years. It is clear Pakistan does not want to commit itself to any long-term arrangement for hosting the Afghan refugees. Instead, Pakistan may extend their stay for another six months post-December 2016, in case of need or in the event of international pressure or improvement in relations with Afghanistan.
To strengthen its case for repatriation of the Afghan refugees, Pakistan has come up with new arguments in recent months. The Federal Minister for States and Frontier Regions, Lt Gen (Retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, claimed that the Afghan refugees had deprived locals of nearly a million jobs in Pakistan, and had become a burden on Pakistan’s economy. Some ministers and police officials routinely accuse the Afghan refugees of being involved in crime and acts of terrorism, though they have yet to provide figures to substantiate their claim. In fact, certain knowledgeable police officials concede that the percentage of criminals among the Afghan refugees is more or less the same as that of Pakistanis.
Minister Baloch and other government functionaries have also accused the Afghan government, including that of the former president, Hamid Karzai from 2001-2014, and the existing one led by President Ashraf Ghani, of failing to take concrete steps to facilitate the return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. In fact they are still doubtful of Kabul taking any real initiative to bring back its citizens from Pakistan. Instead the Afghan government continues to bank on the UNHCR and certain European countries and donors to financially assist in the repatriation of the Afghan refugees from Pakistan.
The recent influx of migrants to Europe — among them 30 percent are stated to be Afghans — has alarmed the EU member countries, and Pakistani officials said some of them were considering playing a role in getting Afghan refugees in Pakistan and elsewhere repatriated to Afghanistan. However, no plans have been firmed up as yet to undertake such an initiative.
The UNHCR has already doubled its repatriation grant for Afghan refugees from $200 to $400 per person in a bid to encourage them to return to Afghanistan. The need for enhancing the repatriation grant was felt necessary as the number of Afghan refugees voluntarily returning home from Pakistan fell sharply in 2016 to a mere 6,000 from 58,211 last year. The worsening security situation in Afghanistan due to the rise in attacks by the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State, or Daesh, is the main reason for the Afghan refugees’ decision not to return to Afghanistan this year, though a major factor is their gradual integration into the Pakistani economy and society.
When the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, paid his maiden visit to Pakistan in June during the week dedicated to the World Refugee Day, he said the roughly 2.5 million Afghan refugees in the country risked becoming a “forgotten” crisis and urged the international community to invest more funds to help them. He also urged the Pakistanis not to blame the Afghan refugees for terrorism in their country, adding “you know they are not terrorists.”
Some exasperated Pakistanis respond to such statements by asking the West to open their doors to the Afghan refugees, as Pakistan has done enough to host them since 1979 and even allowed them to live and work anywhere in the country instead of restricting them to refugees camps. Matters aren’t helped by the uneasy Pak-Afghan relations, and on occasions, tough and provocative statements are issued by government functionaries and politicians in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. For instance, Balochistan Home Minister Sarfaraz Bugti issued one such statement after the capture of six Afghan spies in which he warned that Afghan refugees unwilling to return to Afghanistan honourably would be thrown out.
Such statements and critical op-ed articles apart, there have been few public protests against the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, despite their long stay in record numbers. In fact, the local communities, where the number of Afghan refugees is the highest, have barely complained about their presence. On occasions, when there were acts of terrorism in the country, small protests were staged but the Afghan refugees were not attacked or discriminated against. One such protest was staged in Peshawar on June 20 by traders who wanted immediate repatriation of the Afghan refugees as they had occupied businesses and were a burden on Pakistani’s economy and civic services. However, the protest was small and there were no further protests. In fact, this protest was prompted by the Torkham border clash between the security forces of the two countries in which a Pakistan Army major was killed.
Pakistan has been proposing to Afghanistan and the UN to establish camps inside Afghanistan for the repatriation of Afghan refugees and has also offered assistance, including free supply of wheat for three years, to accomplish this task. However there has been no follow—up on this proposal. Incidentally, international assistance for the Afghan refugees in Pakistan effectively ended in 1995, and presently the UNHCR is providing some help to run the schools and clinics set up in the refugee camps.
As the burden of Afghan refugees falls more on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa than other provinces, the PTI-led provincial government is quite vocal in demanding the repatriation of the refugees. However, it is the federal government and the military who have the final authority to take any decision on this matter. In principle they have made up their minds to send back the Afghans and, henceforth, disallow entry of any Afghan to Pakistan without a visa. It remains to be seen how long it would take to make this happen.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.