The increasingly complex dynamics of Afghans in Pakistan


The increasingly complex dynamics of Afghans in Pakistan

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Impulsiveness in foreign policy particularly when it involves relations with neighbours is not a prudent virtue. On October 3, the apex committee of the Pakistan government announced a deadline of November 1 for all illegal immigrants to leave the country. Since this decision will affect a large number of undocumented Afghans living in Pakistan, it is already being seen as a major jolt to an already struggling bilateral relationship.

Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees since the early 1980s. At any point in time, around four million Afghans have been living in Pakistan. While the number of registered refugees with the UNHCR has hovered between 1.5 to 3 million depending on the ground situation in Afghanistan, a sizeable part of Afghans in Pakistan has continued to be undocumented due to socio-cultural proximity. 

A fresh surge in numbers of Afghans was witnessed during 2021 coinciding with the US and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan embraced large numbers of Afghans and issued visas on humanitarian grounds both for temporary relocation in Pakistan and for eventual migration to other countries. Unfortunately, many developed countries who had encouraged the out-flux of Afghans after the Taliban takeover have failed to fulfil their commitments to emigrate these Afghans and large numbers of such people remain stranded in Pakistan as well as elsewhere. 

Pakistan is not a party to the UN Convention on Refugees. The stay of registered Afghan refugees (estimated at 1.4 million) is governed by a tripartite arrangement between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UNHCR. The repatriation of registered Afghan refugees to their homeland has to take place according to a mutually agreed course of action between the three parties subject to the creation of conditions for re-settlement of these people in Afghanistan.  

There is no such legal framework to cover the stay of over 1.7 million undocumented Afghans in Pakistan, except that authorities in recent years have made an attempt to bring all these Afghans into a database and temporary cards have also been issued to some of them. The stay of these Afghans in Pakistan and plans for their deportation at various occasions have been driven from the considerations of international humanitarian law and the state of bilateral affairs.

It is an undeniable fact that the stay of foreigners in Pakistan or their expulsion are within the sovereign rights of the state of Pakistan. However, it is important to draw a distinction between Afghans and other foreigners living in Pakistan. Afghans living here are mostly Pashtuns deeply embedded in Pakistan’s social fabric around the country or Hazaras and Tajiks staying in Pakistan to escape persecution in Afghanistan following the US/NATO withdrawal. Therefore, the expulsion of Afghans is likely to have complications. The search and identification operations launched by law-and-order forces in the densely populated neighbourhoods of Peshawar, Karachi, Lahore and other places can be extremely difficult which, among other factors, can also spark unrest within the Pakistani population hosting them. The capacity limitations of the law-and-order institutions of the federal government and the provincial governments can render the entire process messy and counter-productive.

The recent announcement of deportation by Pakistan has led to harsh public statements from Afghan leaders and officials, worsening an already tainted environment of bilateral interaction. 

Mansoor Khan

The rule for deportations around the world is to keep the process out of the media glare to avoid public and humanitarian pressures. Over the past four decades, Pakistan has earned immense goodwill in Afghanistan and internationally for hosting millions of Afghans in a dignified manner. The recent announcement of deportation by the apex committee with a short timeline has led to harsh public statements from Afghan leaders and officials worsening an already tainted environment of bilateral interaction. 

Given the complex history of war, insurgencies and militancies for the past half century, the two countries must closely cooperate in bilateral and regional counter-terrorism frameworks. The deportations are a rather risky approach that can widen divergences between Pakistan and Afghanistan, creating impediments in pursuit of geo-economic strategy to promote regional connectivity.

Introspectively, Pakistan has not been able to use the Afghans living in Pakistan as an economic asset. For the past four decades, around four million Afghans have been living in Pakistan. While Pakistan has provided them with opportunities to be educated, groomed and employed mostly at par with Pakistanis, not creating an investment framework for these Afghans in various sectors or using their presence in any other ways to strengthen the country’s economy is difficult to explain on rational grounds. Consequently, while Pakistan continues to host more Afghans than any other country in the world, Afghan money has found a way to other destinations.

Currently, as Pakistan is facing formidable internal and external challenges, it's important that the crucial relationship with Afghanistan is steered with prudence and objectivity. The return of refugees and undocumented Afghans in a dignified and workable manner is only possible if it is addressed as a subset of the whole of the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. For this, a broad-based dialogue with Afghanistan is vital involving discourse on security, counter-terrorism, border management, movement of people, trade, transit, connectivity and the dignified return of Afghans to their homeland. 

A mechanism to regulate documented movements across a 2,600 km long border has to be part of overall dialogue with Afghanistan. However, the process has to take into account the needs of the people on either side, particularly hundreds of thousands of tribal people requiring facilitation for free movement across the border for health, education, work and business. Sealing the border is not the solution and will simply shatter the fabric of natural connectivity with Afghanistan. 

Only an approach of working on strengthening mutual stakes in relations will ensure a win-win situation for the people of the two countries.

— Mansoor Ahmad Khan is Pakistan's former ambassador to Afghanistan. Former ambassador of Pakistan to Austria & PR to UN Vienna. Ex-Chairman UN CND.

Twitter @ambmansoorkhan

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view