ISLAMABAD: Bahishta Ismail Khel, 13, was studying in the third grade and described living “a happy life” with her family in Kabul when the Taliban overthrew the Ashraf Ghani administration in August 2021, forcing Khel’s family to escape to Pakistan to flee the ensuing violence.
But life after entering Pakistan via Spin Boldak, a border town in Afghanistan, has been far from easy for the Khel family, which is currently squatting in a makeshift tent village in Islamabad’s posh F-6 sector — one of roughly 500 Afghan refugee families, comprising five to eight members each, who have been camped in two parks in the capital for over three months.
Most of the families do not want to live in Pakistan permanently and are hoping for Western embassies to process their immigration applications. In the meantime, they wait.
Pakistan is home to around 2.8 million Afghan refugees, including 1.5 million registered and 1.3 million unregistered Afghan nationals, according to the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. After the Taliban takeover of the war-battered country in August 2021, some 250,000 additional Afghans took shelter in neighboring Pakistan.
“Here mosquitoes bite us at night, there is no food for us,” Khel told Arab News from inside a plastic tent. “I was going to school in Kabul and living a happy life. We fled after law and order deteriorated there.”
As Khel spoke, rain battered the roof of the flimsy shelter. Heavy rains have lashed the country in recent days, leaving large swathes of the country inundated with water, and killing over 430 people nationwide.
“I miss my friends and home,” the 13-year-old said, trying to hold back tears.
Many Afghans also fled their country after the Taliban closed girls’ schools in Afghanistan in March, hoping female members of their families could continue their education in Pakistan.
But it was only after arriving in Pakistani cities that they realized their children could not be admitted to Pakistani government-run schools without proper documents, while private institutions were too expensive for them to afford.
“One of my daughters has gotten mentally ill after the schools’ closure. They insist on going to school, but there is no facility for them [in Pakistan],” Basmina Sadaat, an Afghan mother of three, told Arab News. “What about their studies and future? We don’t have money to pay their fees [in private schools].”
Sadaat said her family left Kabul in March after the new Taliban authorities withheld the salary of her husband, an Afghan government employee.
“We were living in a rented house in Kabul, but when the Taliban took over, they stopped my husband’s salary,” she said. “We didn’t even have money for food, let alone for the house rent.”
“Our country is destroyed and isn’t liveable now, but we have no identity here either.”
Many Afghan refugees have set up a protest camp outside the National Press Club in Islamabad and urged the UNHCR, the United States (US), and other western countries to grant them immigration for a better future.
“So far nobody from the embassy of any country has approached us for any sort of help,” Khel’s father, Aimal Ismail Khel, told Arab News.
“I had to flee Kabul with my family after the Taliban killed my brother and threatened to kill me as well for working with the Afghan army as a driver.”
Aimal said he borrowed Rs40,000 ($167) from a friend to bear the cost of traveling to Islamabad.
His family is now living on charity: “I have no savings. We are going through the worst phase of our life.”
The Pakistani government says Afghans who arrived in Pakistan after the Taliban takeover are not considered refugees as they plan to resettle in a third country, preferably the US or in Europe.
“These Afghans are not protesting against Pakistan, instead they have been requesting the US and western countries to relocate them in their countries,” Muhammad Abbas Khan, a commissioner in Islamabad for Afghan refugees, told Arab News.
“We have extended their visas till December, and may extend it further to facilitate their stay in Pakistan. I have personally visited them in Islamabad, but they are not ready to register with us. In fact, they avoid us as they have been using Pakistan as a transit territory.”
Khan said the Afghan nationals had a “genuine issue,” which was why the Pakistani government was not evacuating them.
“We aren’t harassing them in any way, rather we want them to leave for their intended destinations as quickly as possible,” he added.
The UNHCR said it was working with the Pakistani government to provide protection and assistance to Afghan and other refugees.
“We are currently discussing with the government of Pakistan the way forward on registration and documentation of asylum-seekers, predominantly from Afghanistan,” Qaiser Khan Afridi, a spokesperson for the UNHCR Pakistan, told Arab News.
Asif Khan Zadran, a press attaché at the Afghan mission in Islamabad, said the embassy had helped Afghan nationals camped in Islamabad get temporary residency in Pakistan so they could work on processing their applications for relocation.
“The embassy is attesting the applications of all those who are getting immigration offers from other countries,” Zadran told Arab News. “This is up to these Afghans to approach and plead embassies of European countries here in Islamabad for visas. We can’t help them, but we are also not trying to create any hurdles for them.”