Millions of Afghan refugees are going to get another extension in stay by Pakistani authorities in the country. The extension in stay to Afghan refugees this time is totally incomprehensible as even the most important stakeholder in the security of Pakistan, the military, has also started asking for repatriation of all the Afghan refugees living on Pakistani territory for being a potential risk to the security of the state.
Reportedly, Pakistan is likely to extend the stay of Afghan refugees for six more months as the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) has already sent a summary in this regard to the federal cabinet. Here it is important to note that the last Afghan refugees’ stay expired on December 31 last. There have been six extensions in stay by Pakistan to millions of Afghan refugees. Every time when the extension was given it was announced that there would be no further extension. However, every time the concerned ministers and officials had to eat their words.
Pakistani security forces after huge losses of men and material have been able to establish the state writ in the militant-terrorist infested regions on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Most of Pakistani and their foreign-affiliated militant and terrorist groups have fled to Afghanistan and from there are launching terrorist attacks inside Pakistan with the collusion of anti-Pakistan Afghan authorities. Pakistan has also taken comprehensive measures to manage its more than 2,400 kilometers long border with Afghanistan by erecting gates on the main entry points, establishing more than 1,000 pickets and digging around 1,100 kilometers-long trench in Balochistan along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border―the Durand Line, with billions of rupees. All these successes would go down the drain if the government fails to revoke its decision to send back all the Afghan refugees by the year end and instead sent them immediately.
Pakistan is currently hosting 1.9 million Afghan refugees, including 1.3 million registered and at least 600,000 unregistered refugees. Still the exact number of Afghan refugees has remained unknown. UNHCR pays every returning refugee $200 in cash but the repatriation had been slowest in 2017. According to the Ministry of SAFRON, as many as 50,000 refugees had returned in 2017. In 2016, nearly 500,000 documented and undocumented refugees were repatriated to Afghanistan.
However, initially the federal government was pondering allowing Afghan refugees to stay in Pakistan for a period of a year. Reportedly, the army expressed reservations over such a long stay. It is not for the first time that the army has aired its disapproval at the stay of Afghan refugees. The Director General Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) has on more than one occasion called for sending back all the Afghan refugees. The army’s objection to Afghan refugees is fundamentally due to security issues which these refugees have created for Pakistan and its inhabitants. Concerned authorities also have realization of the grave security threat posed by Afghan refugees. For instance, currently as many as 100,000 new proof of registration cards (PoRs) had been blocked by NADRA because of security concerns. These cards had been printed but it had been ordered not to issue them.
In 2016, the federal government had prepared a two-phased plan stating full repatriation of refugees to start in 2017 and the remaining refugees to be sent back by 2018.
The government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) policy regarding Afghan refugees has been quite confused, at best. For instance, on the one hand the federal cabinet was giving extension in stay to millions of registered and unregistered refugees in Pakistan. Whereas, government’s long-serving erstwhile Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, on several occasions had stated that the Afghan refugees were being used for terrorist attacks inside Pakistan.
The Afghan authorities have been asking Islamabad not to repatriate millions of Afghan refugees as their country could not bear the burden of these refugees. As almost all of these refugees have now become economic migrants their involvement in terrorist attacks inside Pakistan is intolerable. In other words the issue is not just of economic burden but has translated into a grave security threat to the country. Keeping in view the historical Afghan state animosity towards Pakistan, the use of these refugees by intelligence agencies of their country of origin cannot be ruled out. Against this backdrop, the extension in these refugees’ stay in Pakistan yet again by the federal government is unbelievable.
One explanation of this dichotomy of policy of the PML-N government regarding the Afghan refugees can be the overbearing influence of Mahmud Khan Achakzai on PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif. Achakzai has always been a vocal exponent of Afghan refugees rights and on one occasion when the KP and Balochistan provincial governments had petitioned to the federal government to immediately send back millions of Afghan refugees to their country as there was strong evidence of their involvement in terrorist activities in these provinces. Achakzai had declared that KP belonged to Afghanistan. PM Sharif has been under the dominating influence of Achakzai because of the vocal support of the latter to the former against the main opposition party of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
The involvement of Afghan refugees in anti-Pakistan activities had forced Pakistani security authorities to convey to the government to repatriate all the Afghan refugees by the end of 2016 as they had posed grave threat to the security of the state and its citizens. This had become the justification for recommending their repatriation. The security agencies recommendation came after the KP government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Balochistan government led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) took a stringent stand on the repatriation of Afghan refugees. These two provinces, which have been hosting almost all the millions of Afghan refugees, informed the federal government that they no longer can bear the burden of these aliens as they had posed a serious threat to the security of their residents.
Millions of Afghan refugees, which at one time peaked to nearly four-and-a-half million, constituting the largest refugee population anywhere in the world have lived with complete freedom of movement and activities in Pakistan for almost four decades. This free hand to millions of legal and illegal Afghan refugees has been costing Pakistan dearly in terms of economic losses, devastating effects on Pakistani culture in the form of proliferation of Kalashnikovs and madrassas and many other ill-effects. But the Pakistani government and decision-makers cared little as they, perhaps, were enamored by the prospects of a “strategic depth” in Afghanistan for which millions of Afghan refugees have to be given a free hand so that they could feel at “home”. Now Pakistan has realized that it would not find any strategic depth in Afghanistan and, in the words of former Advisor to PM Sharif on Foreign Affairs and currently Deputy Chairman Planning Commission, Sartaj Aziz, we abandoned the policy of “Strategic Depth”. This abandonment was clearly the result of its impossible attainment. However, the fact of the matter is that the presence of millions of legal and illegal Afghan refugees has posed an existential threat to the very survival of the state as many have become the agents of enemy intelligence agencies and most dislike Pakistan for no reason at all. Moreover, the interaction of such a large number of Afghan refugees with the pockets of anti-Pakistan elements within certain ethno-linguistic Pakistani groups has resulted in a colossal threat to Pakistan.
At a time when US President Donald Trump is threatening Pakistan to target alleged terrorist and militant outfits operating out of Pakistan, it is extremely necessary for Islamabad to abandon the policy of allowing stay after stay to Afghan refugees and repatriate them at once. Otherwise as has been the case in the past, rogue elements would keep on using the garb of refugees to create unrest and chaos in Pakistan. More importantly, they would use the name of refugees to remain on Pakistani soil and actually launching attacks inside Afghanistan on American interest and personnel. To avoid the repeat of loathsome attacks like the one on the Army Public School, Peshawar, in which apart from Pakistani Taliban certain Afghan elements were also involved, there is critical need to send back all Afghan refugees immediately.