NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 49

JUI-F’s politics on illegal Afghan refugees

The Pakistani authorities’ firm commitment to repatriate illegally residing foreigners, including over a million Afghan nationals, has drawn sharp criticism from key politician Maulana Fazl. The chief of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) has strongly denounced Pakistan’s decision to send back approximately 1.7 million undocumented Afghan residents living in Pakistan after October 31. His primary objection stems from the alleged harassment of Afghan individuals living in Pakistan legally by the country’s law enforcement agencies (LEAs) while pursuing illegal foreigners.

However, Maulana Fazl’s stance appears to diverge significantly from the actual situation. According to the government of Pakistan’s data, there are approximately 4.4 million Afghans residing in Pakistan, of whom roughly 1.7 million lack legal documentation. The reality is that very few Afghans have legal status in Pakistan because the majority of these 4.4 million individuals arrived as refugees during various Afghan wars and conflicts, dating back to 1979. Under international law, refugee status typically ceases after 30 years of residence in a host country. Therefore, most of the 4.4 million Afghans living in Pakistan, despite many being born in Pakistan, do not possess legal status. Nevertheless, Pakistani authorities have exhibited remarkable leniency in accommodating such a substantial number of Afghans, despite historical tensions between the two nations.

Many of these Afghan residents in Pakistan have been issued Proof of Registration (PoR) cards by the Pakistan National Database Registration Authority (NADRA). However, it’s crucial to note that these PoR cards do not confer legal status upon Afghan individuals in Pakistan. Given this context, Maulana Fazl’s argument that Pakistani authorities’ actions against illegal Afghan residents unnecessarily target “legal” Afghans living in Pakistan appears unsubstantiated.

Now, we must consider Maulana Fazl’s underlying motives for criticizing Pakistan’s decision to repatriate all illegally residing foreigners, including Afghans. It is widely known in the Dera Ismail Khan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that the family of Maulana Fazl’s father, Maulana Mufti Mehmood, originally hails from Afghanistan and migrated to the district. Mufti Mehmood entered Pakistani politics through the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), a party of Muslim clerics, and rose to prominence within the clerical hierarchy, eventually becoming the chief minister of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), in the early 1970s. Consequently, Fazl and his family have a unique connection to Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it’s essential to recognize that many Pakistani Pakhtuns also share historical ties to Afghanistan. However, this does not necessarily imply that they would act against Pakistan’s interests, as Pakistan remains their foremost reality with supreme importance.

Maulana Fazl has been a vocal critic of the merger of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in 2018. This merger was initiated by the government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) on the last day of its five-year term and was supported by all political parties except for the JUI-F. Consequently, all political parties collectively passed the 25th Constitutional Amendment to incorporate FATA into KP.

Since the merger, the JUI-F has persistently called for its reversal. While one could argue against the merger based on technical and administrative grounds, highlighting the vast underdevelopment of FATA compared to the relatively more developed KP, Fazl’s opposition appears to be driven by political and vested interests. Due to the social, economic, and political underdevelopment of FATA, the party has held significant influence in the region, consistently winning a majority of National Assembly seats. However, with the merger, the fear was that the residents of the region would become more integrated into the relatively developed KP, potentially diluting JUI-F’s political stronghold. These fears were confirmed in the 2018 elections and subsequent by-elections, where Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) secured a majority of National Assembly seats in the formerly tribal areas, now referred to as Merged Tribal Districts (MTDs). This included a seat on which former PM Khan himself ran and garnered a record number of votes in Kurram district.

It is essential to note that the government of President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan also strongly criticized the merger of FATA with KP, considering it a violation of international law. Afghanistan has maintained claims over FATA, parts of KP, and even portions of Balochistan as ‘lost’ territories that were forcibly annexed by British colonial rulers of India and later inherited by Pakistan as a successor state. This stance is echoed by the current Afghan Taliban regime. Thus, Maulana Fazl’s opposition to the merger can be linked to Afghanistan’s official position on the matter.

Similarly, Maulana Fazl’s ongoing criticism of Pakistan’s decision to repatriate illegal Afghan residents should be viewed through the lens of his strong affinity for Afghanistan. The Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, through their spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, have deemed Pakistan’s decision to expel illegal Afghan residents as ‘unacceptable.’ However, Maulana Fazl must recognize that he is a Pakistani politician, and it is Pakistan that has bestowed upon him his current status, along with the associated privileges and responsibilities. Consequently, he is duty-bound to prioritize the interests of Pakistan above all else. In fact, by aligning himself with Afghanistan’s official positions on the FATA merger and the expulsion of illegal Afghan residents, he may also be attempting to cultivate a political following in Afghanistan for personal gain. Notably, many Afghan Taliban leaders received their religious education in Pakistan in madrassas operated by the JUI-F, and with the Taliban now in control of Afghanistan, the JUI-F and Maulana Fazl may see an opportunity to capitalize on their connections with the new Afghan regime.