Of late, two incidents have proved without doubt that the Afghan refugee population in Pakistan is not only a threat to the economy and security of the country, but also its sovereignty.
In the first incident that happened on August 14, Independence Day of Pakistan, when all Pakistanis were busy celebrating their national day with fervor and enthusiasm, an Afghan national living in the Board locality of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, hoisted the national flag of Afghanistan on a billboard. In another incident on August 18, a bunch of Afghan refugee lads in Peshawar blocked a main square of on Jamrud Road, Hayatabad entrance, and chanted slogans against Pakistan while creating problems for commuters.
The police arrested the man who had hoisted the Afghan flag on Pakistan’s national day as well as some of the Afghan refugee boys who had chanted slogans against Pakistan. However, a local court of Peshawar set free the culprit for hoisting the Afghan flag without any real trial, whereas the perpetrators of the other incident are under investigation but may also be acquitted by court. But more important than their fate is the timing of the incidents and their intention.
Insofar as the intention of the Afghan refugees involved in both incidents is concerned, it is quite obvious that the incidents aimed at infuriating Pakistanis and hurt their sentiments. It is an open secret that most of the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan have a deep hatred towards Pakistan and its citizens. This is despite the fact that the country and its people have done everything to host them for four long decades and facilitate them in every possible and even impossible manner. The Afghan refugees have been displaying their hatred towards Pakistan on every occasion but demonstrating such a behavior in such a daredevil manner and with impunity is a new but dangerous development. Thus, we could safely say that millions of Afghan refugees have become a grave threat to the sovereignty of Pakistan. By hurting the feelings of Pakistanis, the Afghan refugees are triggering a grave conflict which may become bloody.
It is also noteworthy that the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan constitute one of the largest refugee populations anywhere in the world. In fact, for a long time in the past the Afghan refugees in Pakistan were the largest refugee population in a single country. At the height of international conflict in Afghanistan in 1980s, there were four million Afghans living as refugees in Pakistan. Their number remained somewhat constant for a long time but there are no less than two million Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan. But a very important aspect of the Afghan refugee population in Pakistan is their children. They number, by any calculation, no less than 6-7 million.
The two incidents could also be analyzed from the standpoint that the Afghan refugees sensing the return of peace to their country have become overconfident and want to put a message across Pakistan and Pakistanis that what is in store for them once complete peace is returned to Afghanistan. Kabul has longstanding irredentist claims on Pakistan’s Pakhtun territory and it considers the border between the two states, known as the Durand Line, “imaginary” and “controversial.” So, once complete peace returns to Afghanistan, then every possible effort would be made by Kabul to pick up quarrels with Pakistan. This may also be part of the well-orchestrated stratagem of the Afghan security establishment and its agents within the Afghan refugees, so that Pakistan could be stopped from playing its role in Afghanistan and the Taliban could not return to power.
It is unfortunate that in the Pakistani power corridors there has been little cognizance of the grave threat which millions of the Afghan refugees pose to the country’s security, economy and now its sovereignty. This may perhaps be due to the fact that most of the Afghan refugees live outside Islamabad, particularly in KP and Balochistan provinces. However, it does not mean that the threat is not there. Here, it may be mentioned that some months back, the KP government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had asked the federal government of its own party to finally send back the refugees to their country and not to give extension in stay after June 30, 2019, the last day of their last extension. The demand of the KP government from the federal government fell on deaf ears and they were given yet another extension to stay in Pakistan.
Most of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan have been living in KP and they are a huge rather an unbearable burden on the meagre resources of the province. According to KP Information Minister Shaukat Yousafzai, the economy and infrastructure of the province has been in tatters due to the presence of millions of Afghan refugees. Moreover, he said that a large number of the Afghan refugees have been involved in heinous crimes including terrorism. The fact of the matter is that with the rise of the so-called PTM, a self-appointed champion of Pakhtun rights, the repatriation of the Afghan refugees has become even more critical for Pakistan. It is quite obvious that the PTM has been getting full-fledge support from Afghanistan and it even has been admitted by its members. One must recall that when the PTM for the first time started holding demonstrations against the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud in a suspected police encounter in Karachi and made it a case of “atrocities” on Pashtuns, no other than Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had spoken in support of the group.
It is important to note that the demand of the KP government from the federal government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, despite that both are ruled by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), not to grant further extension in the stay of the Afghan refugees was diametrically opposed to what the premier had said a few months back. In a strange statement, PM Imran Khan had said that his government was considering naturalizing the Afghan refugees and Bangladeshis living in Pakistan. The statement had raised serious concerns people from different walks of life and many political parties too. While it could not be understood that in what context PM Khan made the statement, but it seems that while doing so he was not fully aware of the legal, political and social pitfalls, which the step would precipitate.
Later, PM Khan and his ministers tried to clarify that the statement regarding naturalizing the Afghan refugees in Pakistan was made as there was no other option but to deal with them. Some ministers and government spokesmen unsuccessfully tried to defend the statement by stating that he was just mentioning Afghans living in Karachi. It did not make sense at all that a country would take a decision to naturalize foreigners living in one of its cities and left others. This was not at all practicable because once foreign citizens in one part of Pakistan are naturalized, it would set an example. As the statement and whatever half-cooked plan was to naturalize millions of Afghan citizens, it was totally irrational and would continue to be irrational, therefore, it has been unheard of since then.
It is not only the KP province but also Balochistan, where the second largest Afghan refugee population lives, has been objecting to their continued stay there. Now the most important question is that when Pakistan policymakers would realize the multiple threats the Afghan refugees population pose to Pakistan as well as to peace in their own country.