NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 35

The challenge of Afghan refugee extension in Pakistan

Recently, the federal cabinet discussed the matter of extending the stay of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, as their previous extension expired on June 30, 2023. The interior ministry has proposed a six-month extension for the millions of Afghan refugees, but this goes against the state’s policy of granting further extensions to such a large number of foreign aliens in Pakistan. Granting another extension would contradict the prevailing consensus within the corridors of power, which deems the presence of a large number of aliens detrimental to the state and society.

It is important to note that the proposal for a six-month extension has two aspects. Firstly, granting only a short extension signifies that the government is not inclined to provide long-term extensions for Afghan refugees, which is a positive development. However, the government’s handling of the issue reflects confusion within the administration of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his ruling alliance comprising 13 parties. Ideally, the government should have urged Afghan refugees to repatriate immediately, as the continued presence of millions of refugees is not in Pakistan’s best interest. Interestingly, the ruling alliance is proposing a six-month extension just one month before completing its constitutional tenure in August 2023. This suggests that the government is passing the burden of decision-making regarding Afghan refugees onto the next administration. Unfortunately, this approach is unfavorable for Pakistan, as the state needs a clear policy regarding the refugees, emphasizing that they are no longer welcome.

It is worth mentioning that despite growing awareness among the parliament and those in power about the numerous problems and threats associated with the prolonged presence of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, little practical action has been taken by the country’s authorities to address the issue.

For example, the Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly of Pakistan previously directed the government to deport unregistered Afghan refugees while relocating registered nationals to refugee camps. The committee, chaired by Noor Alam Khan, also instructed the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions to raise the issue of Afghan refugees at the United Nations. However, the government has thus far failed to take action.

Noor Alam highlighted that the refugees have been living in Pakistan for years, conducting business activities, yet they do not pay taxes. He also criticized reports of Afghans defaming Pakistan worldwide. Additionally, the committee directed the Interior Secretary and SAFRON Secretary to locate 1.4 million Afghan refugees within a month and report back to the committee. However, there has been no visible progress in this regard. Millions of unregistered refugees reside in Pakistan, and many have acquired Pakistani national documents such as Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs) and passports. Countless others have purchased properties in Pakistan. However, the crucial question is whether Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies have the capability and willingness to locate and handle all registered and unregistered Afghan refugees in accordance with the law. The answer is that neither Pakistani law enforcement agencies possess the will nor the capacity to effectively address the Afghan refugee problem. While Pakistani LEAs may have some capacity to deal with the issue to a certain extent, there has consistently been a lack of political and administrative will to confront it. This is partly due to Pakistan’s historical pursuit of strategic depth in Afghanistan, which led to accommodating Afghans. However, this policy proved counterproductive, turning Afghanistan into a strategic quagmire rather than providing Pakistan with the desired depth. As a result, during the last PML-N government from 2013-2018, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s advisor on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, officially renounced the policy of Strategic Depth. Subsequently, Pakistan expended significant resources and suffered substantial losses to erect barbed wire fencing along most of the 2,640-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Nevertheless, with such a large number of Afghans already living in Pakistan, numbering in the millions, the effectiveness of this fence is limited. Therefore, Pakistani LEAs must recognize the grave security threat posed by millions of foreign Afghan refugees living on Pakistani soil, many of whom have engaged in anti-Pakistan activities.

Last year, two significant developments took place concerning Afghan refugees, which had implications for national security. If pursued and implemented effectively, these measures could have contributed to enhanced security in the country. The first development involved a notable individual from the Mohmand tribal district filing a court petition to cancel thousands of Pakistani CNICs and domicile certificates obtained fraudulently by Afghan citizens residing in the district. The second development was the announcement by the then Federal Interior Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, to block approximately 200,000 CNICs obtained through fraudulent means by Afghan nationals living in Pakistan.

These two incidents appear to be closely connected, as the government’s move to block the CNICs of 200,000 Afghan citizens occurred shortly after the petition was filed by the Mohmand notable. A significant number of Afghan nationals living in Pakistan have obtained Pakistani nationality documents, including CNICs and domiciles, and many have been involved in various criminal and illegal activities. These activities range from gun-running, drug smuggling, and kidnapping for ransom to providing mercenary services for local disputes among tribes and families, as well as engaging in prostitution. However, the most alarming activity in which many Afghans have been implicated over the past four decades is terrorism. It is worth noting that Afghan nationals or Afghan support for Pakistani terrorists have been involved in numerous terrorist incidents in Pakistan, including bombings in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province and Balochistan, and the peak of terrorism in Pakistan from 2007 to 2016. Following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979, millions of Afghan citizens sought refuge in Pakistan. At one point in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan reached a staggering four million.

Consequently, Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan have become a significant strategic security threat. Therefore, the Pakistani government must approach this issue with utmost seriousness.