NationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 23

Our flawed policy on Afghan refugees

At last some realization has started prevailing in the decision-making circles of Pakistan regarding the grave security threat posed by millions of Afghan refugees, as the country’s law enforcement authorities have unearthed the mastermind of a recent Lahore terrorist attack, who was an Afghan who was living and raised in Pakistan as a refugee. Although most of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan are law-abiding people, yet there have been a chunk of hardened criminals and even terrorists among them.

It does not mean that terrorism unleashed in Pakistan has only been by Afghan refugees. Rather a large number of Pakistanis have been involved in terrorism in the country and even other regional countries. However, for Pakistan the presence of millions of registered and then a far bigger number of unregistered Afghan refugees has been a serious security dilemma with which it is very difficult to negotiate unless there is a clarity of policy on the problem.

Unfortunately, what we in Pakistan have observed over the last three decades is that Islamabad lacked a clear policy on the question of millions of registered and unregistered Afghan refugees living in the country. National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister Moeed Yousaf’s statement regarding Afghan refugees is the first expression of some kind of concern from government circles regarding the millions of Afghan refugees. Unfortunately, even Moeed Yousaf’s statement does not delineate a clear policy direction on the question of the refugees.

While commenting on the recent Lahore terrorist attack and the main suspect, Eid Gul, who parked a car in Johar Town, the NSA said the accused was of Afghan origin and had been raised in Pakistan possessing a local national identity card issued to Afghan refugees. “Let me also say the main executor (Eid Gul) is of Afghan origin, who lived in Pakistan, executed the attack, and we as the state of Pakistan have been constantly telling this to the world that millions of law-abiding Afghan refugees are given a bad name and Pakistan is blamed when these actors go and hide in refugee settlements and then Pakistan is questioned; why one or two or three people, who are terrorists, who are miscreants, could not be apprehended. We have been constantly reminding the world of its duty to find a way for a dignified return of all Afghan refugees,” Moeed said.

One has a deep disagreement with Moeed because it is not up to the world to find a way for the return of millions of Afghan refugees. Suppose the world never comes up with any solution to the problem, then would Pakistan remain unmoved? It is Pakistan’s security that has been threatened by millions of Afghan refugees and, therefore, it is Pakistan that shall take concrete measures in this regard. Pakistan cannot wait for the world to make decisions for it, as it is a grave security issue for the country. It is also not correct that the world has been placing any impediments in the way of the return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. Islamabad has to formulate a robust and unequivocal policy on the issue to settle it, otherwise it would fester.

After the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979, millions of Afghan citizens had descended upon Pakistan as refugees. At one point in time in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of the Afghan refugees had crossed four million, mostly living in KP and Balochistan, as well as Karachi and far-off areas of Punjab, like Mianwali. While living in Pakistan, most of the refugees, due to bad policies of Pakistani decision-makers, particularly strategists enamored by the concept of the “strategic depth” in post-Soviet Afghanistan and General Zia’s vision of creating a Muslim Emirate in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, gave a complete freedom to the Afghan refugees to do whatever they deemed appropriate and live in cities and villages instead of camps. It turned out to be a kind of worst brainless social engineering by a dictator least bothered by the consequences for the state and society of his whimsical decisions. It is one of the gravest mistakes that Pakistan policymakers have committed in the history of the country. Recently, Pakistan has nearly completed the fencing of its border with Afghanistan, while Prime Minister Khan said on the floor of the National Assembly recently that Pakistan had abandoned the strategic depth policy in Afghanistan. If it is the case, then why are the millions of Afghan refugees not sent back to their home country? If Pakistan does not want it, why are these millions of Afghan refugees making inroads, socially, financially, economically and even politically, into the country?

The interminable presence of the millions of Afghan refugees on Pakistani soil has not only posed a grave multidimensional security threat to the state and society but also increasingly been bringing the locals and Afghan denizens face to face in business and property disputes in many areas of Pakistan. Despite the federal government’s grant of another extension in stay to millions of registered Afghan refugees in December last, it seems that eventually there is some realization within Pakistan authorities regarding the security threat posed by the refugees. On January 2 this year, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed revealed blocking around 200,000 CNICs obtained through fraud by Afghan nationals living in Pakistan.

The security threat posed by the refugees, particularly unregistered Afghan nationals living in Pakistan, can be ascertained from a writ petition by a Pakistani tribal notable of Mohmand district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province in the Peshawar High Court. The notable, Hazrat Khan Mohmand, moved the PHC for the cancellation of thousands of Pakistani Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs) and domicile certificates, obtained fraudulently by citizens of Afghanistan residing in the district. Noticeably, Hazrat Khan maintained that a representative council (Jirga) of Essakhel sub-tribe of Mohmand tribe of Jaroobi, Mohmand district, had unanimously passed a resolution demanding the federal and provincial governments and relevant authorities to cancel the CNICs of Afghan nationals living in the district. He rightly argued that the illegally Pakistanised Afghans were usurping the rights of Mohmand tribe and had violated the law, especially the Pakistan Citizen Act, 1951. Apparently, the writ petition had sensitized the federal interior minister to take an important step of blocking Pakistani CNICs of Afghans. It is important to note that many illegal Afghan nationals masquerade as Pakistani nationals due to linguistic and cultural similarities and are creating problems for the locals. They deprived and dispossessed Pakistani Pakhtun tribal areas residents by usurping the perks and privileges associated with Pakistani nationality.

A large number of Afghan nationals living in Pakistan have obtained Pakistani nationality documents including CNICs and domiciles and many have been involved in crimes and a range of illegal activities. However, the most dangerous activity in which a large number of Afghans have been found to be involved over decades is terrorism. It is high time that millions of Afghan refugees were repatriated, otherwise they would never go back and Pakistan would continue to suffer from their presence.