Expelling Afghan refugees will be the nail in the coffin for Pakistan’s goodwill 

Expelling Afghan refugees will be the nail in the coffin for Pakistan’s goodwill 

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Last week, Pakistan announced it plans to forcibly repatriate more than 1.1 million ‘unregistered’ refugees back to Afghanistan. The decision has been taken in the face of escalating attacks from across the border targeting Pakistan’s border security forces. There are other reasons given for the extraordinary step and unconfirmed reports of the widespread practice of smuggling trade items that include food as well as the transfer of dollars. Yet another reason is the alleged, though totally unsubstantiated allegation, of the involvement of Afghan refugees in crime in Pakistan’s major cities. As a consequence, those who are undocumented will have to be pushed out across the border. 

The reasons cited in the decision are hardly convincing and do not reflect existing ground realities. Afghan refugees have lived in Pakistan for many years. Some have been registered and are reflected in the official record as well as on the record of the UN’s Refugee Agency or UNHCR. Others have simply been issued identity cards. Some others are without any documents. The reason: Pakistani authorities have not been able to reach them and get them registered. One reason is they have no permanent or even makeshift residences, but the onus is on the officials of the refugee administration to approach and get all registered. No refugee family has ever refused to be registered and non–registration is not based on their refusal to get documented. It is instead due to the inability of Pakistani authorities to issue registration documents. The rational approach would have been to launch a countrywide campaign to register all those who are undocumented.

In an atmosphere of such acrimony, how do we look forward to making Afghanistan a springboard for importing electricity from Tajikistan and gas from Turkmenistan? 

Rustam Shah

The other reason for expulsion is the spate of cross border attacks. But no evidence exists of any refugees’ involvement in border attacks. Likewise, there is no record with any government department to show refugees organizing or helping in the smuggling of goods. How is smuggling taking place when the entire border has been fenced and a round-the-clock monitoring system has been put in place? How many refugees have so far been apprehended for carrying goods across the border? None. How many refugees have been involved in crimes against the state? None. 

Yes, refugees like all other communities, commit crimes in their areas over property disputes or because of enmity or other reasons. But there are no instances where refugees have targeted security forces and government installations. 

Afghan refugees have lived in Pakistan for 40 years in large numbers. This is a unique example in the history of the world, where the presence of millions of refugees in a country for such a long length of time has not caused any major upheavals or backlash or organized confrontations with locals. Afghan refugees have existed peacefully alongside their hosts without creating any law-and-order situation over the last four decades. This is unparalleled in contemporary times, and the credit for this goes both to the refugees as well as the local population on whose lands they have lived in rural areas and near the main cities. 

Now some have resorted to upset this balance and create a situation where homeless, innocent and impoverished Afghan families will be detained, put on lorries and taken across the border to a country from which hundreds of thousands have migrated in the last two years alone because of poverty. 

That is one dimension of this ugly episode. Throwing out these people who have no criminal record only because they don’t carry valid documents will be an act of inhumanity. It will induce further tensions in Pakistan’s fraught relations with its neighbor. 

Whatever little goodwill Pakistan has left in Afghanistan-- and it is not much-- will be erased. In an atmosphere of such acrimony, how do we look forward to making Afghanistan a springboard for importing electricity from Tajikistan and gas from Turkmenistan? How will Afghanistan become a critical member of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative? Why is strategic vision so lacking when it is so badly needed?

Punish according to law all those refugees who are involved in crimes and any anti-state activity. But to expel hundreds of thousands without any valid reason? That is going to be highly counterproductive. In the garb of such a forced exodus, many innocent, registered refugees will also suffer. Families will be torn apart, and uncertainty will hang over those still remaining. Instances of police high-handedness will cause more pain and distress. 

Pakistan’s entire Afghan policy needs an immediate reappraisal if lasting damage to relations with a neighbor are to be prevented.

- Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.

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