As expulsion deadline approaches, Pakistan-Afghan relations are on the brink
They don’t know where to go. For years they’ve lived in Pakistan in makeshift houses, tents and garages. Their homes in Afghanistan no longer exist. Many feel like strangers in their ancestral villages.
The decision to forcibly evict more than a million Afghan refugees was taken without any debate or consensus among stakeholders. It was not rooted in objective realities and the justification is now based on questionable assumptions. To link the issue of forced expulsion with issues of security is a preposterous idea.
The Afghan refugees are almost all self-employed. They work mostly in the construction, farming, transport sectors. They are confined to their workplaces. Those who launch attacks at the border are either members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Daesh. Refugees don’t go to the border to cause blasts or launch attacks. There has been no evidence whatsoever of Afghan refugees collaborating with militants striking at Pakistan’s installations.
Afghan refugees have lived peacefully alongside local communities all over the country. They have never been the cause of any unrest, commotion or violence in these areas. In many ways, they have contributed to the national economy by utilizing their skills in and providing cheap labor to industries. The non-documentation argument is absurd grounds to forcibly repatriate them. Never has any Afghan refugee family reused registration in any form. Impoverished Afghans enter this country and seek shelter and safety. It is normally the duty of Pakistani officials, concerned with the care of refugees, to approach all such new arrivals and provide them with identity cards, temporary or permanent. Refugees should not be penalized for the failure of Pakistani authorities to issue them IDs.
In such a dire situation, to repatriate hundreds of thousands of poor refugees is an action bordering on hostility and enmity.
Rustam Shah Mohmand
Under international law, no asylum seeker who has left their country for fear of persecution or starvation can be forcibly repatriated by the country of asylum. Pakistan’s actions are in defiance of these principles. Afghanistan, totally isolated, is desperately trying to manage a crumbling economy as people queue up to leave the country. Unemployment is sky high at more than 70 percent. The country has lost links with international banking systems; foreign aid and investment have come to a standstill. Poverty has taken hold, affecting livelihoods with women and children being the worst sufferers. Children are dying at young ages because of malnutrition. The use of opiates has increased alarmingly. Meanwhile, the US and its allies have refused to release more than $8 billion of Afghan assets on ridiculous charges- a major stumbling block to the revival of the economy.
In such a dire situation, to repatriate hundreds of thousands of poor refugees is an action bordering on hostility and enmity. It will have a long lasting impact on relations between the two countries — one that will generate acrimony and hatred for decades.
One wonders just how policies are formulated and major decisions taken in Pakistan. Mostly at the behest of someone who suddenly realizes the wisdom behind a particular line of action. That is the reason policies lack consistency, strength and durability. That is the reason most other countries are not sure what is going to come next from the rulers in Islamabad.
As it stands, Taliban have not forgotten the many bitter episodes in our relations with our western neighbor. More recently, as the whole long border has been fenced, it’s closed doors on all trade, travel and visits of relatives. The border fencing has already generated huge anger on both sides as families are cut off from their loved ones.
A forced repatriation now, will be a serious blow to Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and will take years to heal, if at all. It will also impact progress on the China-led ‘One Belt, One Road’ project.
Before it is too late, the policy needs to be re-appraised in the light of damaging implications.
- 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.