Afghans hoping to resettle in West live in tent camps in Pakistani capital — and wait

Afghan refugees seeking asylum abroad gather at an open field in protest to demand help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in Islamabad, Pakistan, on May 7, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 02 August 2022

Afghans hoping to resettle in West live in tent camps in Pakistani capital — and wait

  • Roughly 500 Afghan families are camped in two parks in Islamabad since over three months waiting to immigrate to Western nations
  • Pakistan government says Afghans who arrived after Taliban takeover not considered refugees as they plan to resettle in third country

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.” 

Bahishta Ismail Khel, 13, speaks to Arab News in Islamabad, Pakistan, on July 30, 2022. (AN Photo)

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].” 

Basmina Sadaat (right), an Afghan mother of three, is pictured with her family in Islamabad, Pakistan, on July 30, 2022. (AN Photo)

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.” 

After 11-day blockade, Pakistani users report being able to use X without VPN

Updated 28 February 2024

After 11-day blockade, Pakistani users report being able to use X without VPN

  • X first went down on Feb. 17 when a government official confessed to manipulating votes in Feb. 8 elections
  • X’s prolonged disruption has raised widespread concerns about state of democratic freedoms

ISLAMABAD: After being inaccessible for millions of Pakistanis for 11 consecutive days, many users reported they were able to use the social media platform X without enabling a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on Wednesday morning. 

X first went down on Feb. 17 when a government official confessed to manipulating votes in Pakistan’s Feb. 8 general election. The admission came as former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and other political parties staged protests countrywide, alleging the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had rigged elections, which it denies. Mobile phone services were also shut down on polling day over security threats. 

X’s prolonged disruption has raised widespread concerns about the state of democratic freedoms in the country, with the United States and several international organizations urging Pakistan to provide unhindered Internet access and leading digital rights activists calling the blockade a “blatant violation” of civil liberties. 

On Wednesday afternoon, multiple Arab News staffers were able to access X without a VPN, which can mask the identity and location of users to help access websites and services that may be blocked in a certain region. 

VPNs have become increasingly popular in the days since access to X was cut off for much of the country but software application Surfshark reported this week the Pakistan government was working to restrict VPN as well, which the company’s engineers were working to bypass. 

“Twitter (X) is working without VPN in #Pakistan,” journalist Shiraz Hassan said on X. 

A day earlier on Tuesday, Internet observatory group Netblocks said metrics showed X had remained restricted in Pakistan into a tenth day, “as the nation joins an exclusive set of countries that have imposed extended or permanent bans on international social media platforms.” 

Before the latest blockade, Pakistan experienced multiple Internet disruptions in recent weeks that made social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, X and Instagram inaccessible. Recent occurrences were on Jan. 20, Jan. 7 and Dec. 17, when Khan’s PTI party was holding virtual events. The government had blamed those disruptions on “technical glitches.” 

Such shutdowns have previously had a devastating impact on Pakistan’s economy. The day after Khan’s arrest in May last year, Reuters reported that point-of-sale transactions routed through Pakistan’s main digital payment systems fell by around 50 percent according to the region’s two largest payments system operators, 1LINK and Habib Bank Limited.

According to the Internet Society’s monitor Pulse, it is becoming an increasingly common tactic for governments to shut down the Internet on a national or sub-national level to either control civil unrest, stem the flow of misinformation, sway the results of general elections or to gain strategic advantages in territories with ongoing wars.

PM denies state responsibility for Baloch missing persons during Islamabad court appearance 

Updated 28 February 2024

PM denies state responsibility for Baloch missing persons during Islamabad court appearance 

  • Pakistan’s army, intelligence agencies deny carrying out enforced disappearances
  • Balochistan province is the site of a decades long low-level separatist insurgency 

ISLAMABAD: Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said on Wednesday the Pakistani state was not responsible for enforced disappearances, a recurring problem that is often blamed on security agencies in the country’s impoverished southwestern Balochistan province.

The prime minister issued the statement during an appearance before the Islamabad High Court in connection with a case regarding Baloch missing students.

Balochistan has long been plagued by enforced disappearances, with families saying men are picked up by security forces, disappear often for years, and are sometimes found dead, with no official explanation. Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies deny they carry out enforced disappearances.

Separatist groups like the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the most prominent of several separatist groups operating Balochistan, have been fighting a decades long insurgency for independence for mountainous and mineral-rich Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province by territory but the smallest in terms of population. Rights activists, political leaders and families say the insurgency has been used as a pretext to pick up innocent civilians, which the state denies. 

“It is not correct to consider the entire state guilty [for enforced disappearances in Balochistan],” Kakar was widely quoted by local media as telling the court, castigating state critics for not holding separatists and militants responsible when they killed innocent civilians and security officials. 

Balochistan borders Afghanistan to the north, Iran to the west and has a long coastline on the Arabian Sea. It has Pakistan’s largest natural gas field and is believed to hold many more undiscovered reserves. It is also rich in precious metals including gold, the production of which has grown over recent years.

Balochistan is a key location in China’s huge multi-billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of President Xi Jinping’s massive Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Though separatists mostly target Pakistani security forces and state installations in Balochistan, they have also attacked Chinese workers and projects. 

In a rare statement on the issue in 2019, the military sympathized with families of missing Balochs but said some may have joined militant groups and “not every person missing is attributable to the state.”

Pakistan has repeatedly blamed India for fanning militancy in Balochistan, a charge New Delhi denies. 

Ex-PM Khan calls for nationwide election protests over alleged vote counting fraud on Saturday

Updated 28 February 2024

Ex-PM Khan calls for nationwide election protests over alleged vote counting fraud on Saturday

  • Khan’s PTI party claims it won from 179 national constituencies, though it was deprived of nearly 85 seats
  • The party has asked its followers and supporters to take to the streets in large number to protect its mandate

ISLAMABAD: Former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party issued a protest call to its supporters on Tuesday, urging them to take to the streets and demonstrate against the alleged election manipulation following the February 8 polls.

Pakistan’s national polls were marred by a countrywide outage of cellphone networks and delays in the announcement of results by election authorities, leading to widespread suspicions of fraud during the vote counting process.

Several political parties, including the PTI, have been protesting against election irregularities, claiming the results were altered in favor of their opponents.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) denies these allegations.

“Imran Khan has given a message to all of Pakistan today from jail that there will be a protest against the theft of our mandate between 11 and 12am on Saturday,” PTI leader Sher Afzal Marwat said during a news conference.

“I have been assigned the responsibility of the protest in Islamabad,” he added. “We will start the demonstration from F9 Park and it will conclude at the Press Club. We will remain completely peaceful.”

Marwat maintained people had come out to vote for his party at a time when its candidates were not even allowed to run their campaign.

He said it was now everyone’s responsibility to protect that mandate by taking to the streets in large numbers.

The PTI leader claimed the politicians who were taking over power in Punjab and at the National Assembly had not even been elected on their seats.

Independent candidates supported by Khan’s party won over 90 seats and emerged as the single largest bloc in the National Assembly.

It says it can prove its victory from 179 national constituencies, though it was deprived of nearly 85 seats during the vote counting process.

On anniversary of shooting down Indian warplane, Pakistan says will ‘forcefully respond to aggression’

Updated 28 February 2024

On anniversary of shooting down Indian warplane, Pakistan says will ‘forcefully respond to aggression’

  • Pakistan downed Indian MiG-21 aircraft and captured its pilot after New Delhi ordered airstrikes in Balakot in 2019
  • Caretaker PM Kakar says his country is capable of protecting its territorial integrity against external aggression

ISLAMABAD: Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar praised the armed forces of Pakistan on the fifth anniversary of the downing of an Indian fighter jet in Kashmir on Tuesday, saying the incident demonstrated that his country was capable of protecting its territorial integrity in the face of any external aggression.

“Operation Swift Retort” was a military operation conducted by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) on February 27, 2019, in response to the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) airstrike in Balakot a day earlier.

The Indian attack was said to be in response to an attack in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, on February 14 which killed 40 of its paramilitary personnel.

The Indian authorities blamed the attack on its soldiers on a Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, leading to heightened tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors and the attack in Balakot.

“Today marks the completion of five years of ‘Operation Swift Retort,’” the PM office circulated Kakar’s message. “We pay tribute to the professional skill and determination of the Armed Forces of Pakistan, who on this day debunked India’s claims, falsely and wrongly, by practically demonstrating their operational superiority.”

“There should be no doubt that Pakistan is a peace-loving country, committed to protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he added. “We will robustly respond to any aggression.”

During the operation, the PAF conducted airstrikes across the Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed Kashmir region, targeting non-military sites to demonstrate its capability and resolve while avoiding human loss and escalation to a full-scale war.

The operation included an aerial engagement between Indian and Pakistani fighter jets, resulting in the downing of an Indian MiG-21 aircraft and the capture of its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, by Pakistani forces.

The pilot was later released as a gesture of peace by the administration in Islamabad.

Photos, vintage arms and medals: Museum in Pakistan’s Karachi pays homage to provincial police

Updated 28 February 2024

Photos, vintage arms and medals: Museum in Pakistan’s Karachi pays homage to provincial police

  • Sindh Police Museum tells story of the evolution of the provincial police force since when it was first set up in 1843
  • Police uniforms from different eras, swords, guns and shields, significant police orders and photos are on display

KARACHI: The Sindh Police Museum in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi is housed inside a single-story colonial-era building chock-full of rare artifacts like photos, uniforms, swords and guns that tell the story of the evolution of the provincial police force since when it was first set up in 1843.

The building, itself built in 1865, was turned into a museum in 2019. The photo gallery offers a visual journey into the history of Sindh Police, showing historical events like the guard-of-honor presented to the founder and first governor-general of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The artifacts section showcases police uniforms from different eras as well as swords, vintage communications equipment, medals and ceremonial shields as well as important and interesting orders from General Sir Charles James Napier, the British governor of Sindh. 

One name that repeatedly shows up during a tour of the museum is that of Edward Charles Martson, who was appointed by Sir Napier and served as the head of Sindh Police from 1848 to 1872, transforming it into a model department for other regions in the British-ruled Indian subcontinent.

Creating this museum collection has not been easy, said Shamim Ahmed, the in-charge of the museum.

“We had to search for relatives or descendants of [former] police officers, we searched for them and collected [these things],” he told Arab News in an interview this week. “The documents and files as well as the weapons were collected the same way.”

Old guns used by Sindh Police on display at the Sindh Police Museum in Karachi, Pakistan, on February 26, 2024. (AN photo)

Work on the project was started in 2010 by then Karachi police chief Saud Mirza and his team who sifted through the provincial archives department for almost a year to find important documents relating to the police department, according to the museum in-charge.

“What you’ve seen isn’t complete yet,” he told Arab News. “There are still some sections that we need to develop further.”

For now, the museum offers a glimpse into the history of the mounted and rural police force that helped maintain order in rural parts of Sindh as well as of the city police unit that now manages Karachi, the provincial capital and commercial hub of Pakistan.

One of the most interesting aspects of the display are colonial-era police reports written in the local Sindhi language. One, dated Jan. 3, 1883, narrates the tale of Umar Jaro, a resident of Sindh’s Thatta district, whose cherished cow was stolen and who rallied a seasoned tracker, locally called ‘jhogi’ or ‘puggy,’ and teamed up with Constable Bachal Shah of the British-era Sindh Police to track the culprit’s footprints and finally nail him at a house near Hyderabad.

Zulfiqar Rashidi, a former member of the core team that worked on the museum project, said British police officers deputed in Sindh had to pass a compulsory Sindhi language exam to show that they would be able to successfully police the area where people mostly communicated in the native language.

While the provincial police have modernized and received new weapons and training to combat crime, the language used in official documents remains the same, Rashidi said. 

“The columns of the FIR [first information report], whether old or new, show no significant changes. Look at the terms like location of incident, reporting time, time of occurrence, number of people involved, what was stolen, all these elements have remained consistent throughout,” Rashidi said, comparing Jaro’s 1883 police report with recent ones.

“Since our Sindh Police has a history, and quite an old one, all the records and information about the police, from the past to the present, have been gathered,” museum in-charge Ahmed said as he turned the pages of a compilation of old police documents.

“If we didn’t preserve them by establishing a police museum, all these things would have been lost in 20-25 years. No one would have any knowledge about these things.”