NationalVOLUME 14 ISSUE # 21

The return of Afghan refugees

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government has asked the federal government to finally send back millions of Afghan refugees to their country and they should not be given any extension in stay after June 30, 2019, the last day of their last extension. The demand from the federal government about the Afghan refugees is apt and profoundly justified for a number of reasons.

Most of the millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan have been living in KP and have been a huge, rather an unbearable burden on the meager resource base of the province. According to the KP Information Minister, Shaukat Yousafzai, due to the presence of millions of Afghan refugees, the economy and infrastructure of the province have been in tatters. Moreover, he also said that as a large number of Afghan refugees have been involved in heinous crimes, including terrorism, therefore, the province and the country cannot afford to give any further extension in stay to the aliens. The fact of the matter is that with the rise of the so-called PTM, a self-appointed champion of Pakhtun rights, the repatriation of millions of Afghan refugees has become even more critical for Pakistan. It is quite obvious that the PTM has been getting full-fledged support from Afghanistan and this has been admitted by its members. One must recall that when the PTM for the first time started holding demonstrations against the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud in a suspected police encounter in Karachi and made it a case of “atrocities” on Pashtuns, no other than Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, spoke in support of the group.

Here, it is important to note that the demand of the KP government from the federal government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, despite that both are ruled by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), not to grant further extension in the stay of Afghan refugees is diametrically opposed to what the premier had said a few months back. In a strange statement, PM Imran Khan had said that his government was considering naturalizing Afghan refugees and Bangladeshis living in Pakistan. The statement had raised serious concerns in different walks of life and many political parties. While it could not be understood that 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 the step would precipitate.

Later, PM Khan and his ministers tried to clarify that the statement about naturalizing Afghan refugees in Pakistan was made as there was no other option to deal with these foreigners living for long in Pakistan. Some ministers and government spokesmen unsuccessfully tried to defend the statement about naturalizing Afghan refugees by PM Khan by stating that he was just mentioning Afghans living in Karachi. This did 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 others. This was not at all practicable because once foreign citizens in one part of Pakistan are naturalized, it would set an example. As the statement and whatever half-cooked plan it was to naturalize millions of Afghan citizens was totally irrational and would continue to be irrational, therefore, it has been unheard of since then.

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 & Forced Migration. Even Pakistan is 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 were the largest refugee population in a single country. At the height of international conflict in Afghanistan in 1980s, there were four million Afghans living as refugees in Pakistan. The 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 in Pakistan is that the number of their children is not less than 6-7 million by reserves estimates.

It is not only KP province but also Balochistan province, where the second largest Afghan refugee population lives, has been objecting to their continued stay there. Baloch ethnic political groups for 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). Pakistan NIC has been the only document that could open vistas of every benefit to their possessors, including jobs and becoming members of parliament. How easy has been the attainment of the Pakistani NIC is known to everyone and particularly when supporters of parties, like the ANP and PkMAP, were there in government institutions? PkMAP chairman Achakzai has been of the opinion that KP belongs to 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 Balochs have become minority in their own province due to a large number of Afghans getting Pakistani nationality fraudulently.

Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M), which is an important part of the PTI-led coalition government of Pakistan, raised serious concerns about PM Khan 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 about Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. Balochistan is a very sensitive issue for any government in Islamabad and, therefore, it has to be extremely careful to deal with the province. Now with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a great hope for the revival of the Pakistan economy, is all set to initiate from Balochistan, repatriating Afghans living in the province should be the priority. Otherwise, many Afghan refugees in Pakistan have been working as Indian agents and one better knows the intention of Delhi to sabotage the CPEC and create unrest in Balochistan.

So it is high time that the federal government must act upon the advise and demand of two of its federating units while the other two also have no objections to sending back millions of Afghan refugees to their country as at least KP and Balochistan cannot afford to keep them further.