The statement by Prime Minister Imran Khan Niazi that his government was considering naturalizing Afghan refugees and Bangladeshis living in Pakistan has raised serious concerns in different social sectors and many political parties also. While it cannot be certain 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 such a step would precipitate.
Although later PM Khan and his ministers tried to clarify that the statement regarding naturalizing Afghan refugees in Pakistan was made as there was no other option there to deal with these foreigners living since long in Pakistan. Some ministers and government spokesmen unsuccessfully tried to defend the statement about naturalizing of Afghan refugees by PM Khan by stating that he was just mentioning Afghans living in Karachi. This does not make sense at all that a country would take a decision to naturalize foreigners living in one of its cities or part and leave the others. This is not at all practicable because once foreign citizens in one part of Pakistan are naturalized this would set an example. Therefore, the PTI government should not even consider such a plan, leave aside giving it practical shape. It is important to note that Pakistan is under no legal compulsion to naturalize Afghans living as refugees in Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan is not even a signatory of the Convention on Refugees and Forced Migration. Pakistan is even under no legal bar to naturalize children born to Afghan refugees in Pakistan, because their parents have been living in the country as “refugees” not in any other legal status therefore, children born to them also do not have any legal rights inside Pakistan.
It is also noteworthy that 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 Afghan refugees in Pakistan was the largest refugee population in a single country. At the height of international conflict in Afghanistan in the 1980s, there were four million Afghans living as refugees in Pakistan. There number remained somewhat constant for a long time, but still there are no less than two million Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan. But a very important aspect of the Afghan refugee population is that nearly all the children that were born to four million Afghans during their refuge in Pakistan, have been dwelling in Pakistan. Their number by any calculation is not less than 6-7 million by conservative estimates. Even if PM Khan intends to naturalize the children of Afghan refugees, how can this be possible? If done this would precipitate crisis after crisis in Pakistan. Naturalizing such a huge population would disturb the entire demographic balance in Pakistan particularly in many parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces and this would be a recipe for disaster. Baloch ethnic political groups since long have been critical of the Pakistan central government and powers-that-be policy of keeping such a large number of Afghans in Pakistan. As the predominant majority of Afghans in Pakistan have been Pashtuns, Pakistani Pashtun parties like Awami National Party, mainly in KP and particularly Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) of Mahmud Khan Achakzai, have been helping Afghans to get Pakistan national identity cards (NIC). A Pakistan NIC has been the only document which could open vistas of every other benefit for their possessors including jobs and becoming members of parliament. How easy has been the attainment of Pakistani NICs is well known and particularly when supporters of parties like the ANP and PkMAP are already there in government institutions. PkMAP chairman Achakzai has been of the opinion that KP belongs to the Afghans and they have been living in their “fatherland” and therefore, cannot be sent back by Pakistan.
Baloch ethnic parties have been at daggers drawn with PkMAP primarily for helping Afghan refugees getting Pakistan NICs and thus disturbing the demographic balance of Balochistan. Baloch ethnic parties have been complaining, very rightly, that the Baloch have become a minority in their own province due to a large number of Afghans getting Pakistani nationality fraudulently.
Now the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M), which is an important part of the PTI-led coalition government of Pakistan, has raised serious concerns about PM Khan’s statement. BNP-M head, Sardar Akhtar Mengal very rightly said that the prime minister should have first consulted with his coalition partners before making a statement regarding Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. Already, the BNP-M alliance with the PTI is an uneasy one as the promises which the latter made to the former are very tough to meet, particularly the recovery of “missing” Baloch. Now with the PTI government bulldozing its coalition partners and even ignoring their genuine demands, does something which goes directly against their interest, it would foment political unrest. Balochistan is a very sensitive issue for any government in Islamabad, and therefore it has to be extremely careful to deal with the province.
An interesting aspect of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan has been that they were allowed into the country by a military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq and not by any democratically-elected government. Moreover, General Zia gave complete freedom of movement and all other freedoms to millions of Afghan refugees to fulfill his absurd vision of creating a regional empire. Today, why should Pakistanis give foreigners Pakistani citizenship and create more crisis for our country and society?
Afghan refugees living in Pakistan is not a normal refugee community as a large number of its members has been involved in anti-state and anti-social activities in Pakistan. In other words, the Afghan refugee population has been a grave risk to the security of the state, society and people. Against this backdrop, how can Pakistan consider giving citizenship rights to millions of Afghans when they have been a threat and could become a more institutionalized threat after their naturalization? The reaction within the country’s security institutions about PM Khan’s statement is not known clearly. However, one thinks that there must be concern felt within the security establishment of Pakistan on such a statement by the prime minister of Pakistan. Therefore, keeping in view all the implications of proposed naturalization of millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the best and already long-delayed solution is to repatriate all Afghans instantly to their country, so as to contribute to its development and rehabilitation through the skills and knowledge they have learnt during their stay in Pakistan.