Pakistan, not a home for the children of war?

I, therefore, stand with the Human Rights Watch when it speaks against forceful return of refugees from Pakistan.

Aima Khosa February 26, 2015
Having worked in newsrooms for nearly three years, I find it increasingly difficult to ignore a certain self-congratulatory attitude among Pakistani journalists. Every now and then, a chief justice takes notice of a rape story and our inboxes are flooded with emails of colleagues congratulating the hard working reporter who broke the story.

Once, we even did a feature on how our story helped a rape victim get justice. It was so smug, it set off a round of emails critiquing such editorial decisions and such a feature thankfully never appeared again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s crucial that good journalism be recognised, for it connects us to a broader issue. Each news story on rape points to a pervasive culture and the comments underneath offer us a glimpse into societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. If by merely reporting it, someone helps a victim get justice, he/she should be appreciated.

But then there are stories like that of Sharbat Bibi’s, McCurry’s Afghan girl. Bibi became a recognised face world-over when National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry captured her portrait at the Nasir Bagh Refugee Camp in 1984. When he found her again 17-years-later, he offered us a look into the life she had lived in Afghanistan and Pakistan during a tumultuous phase in both nations’ history. She is not a rape victim. But when she hit the headlines recently – with TV and newspaper reporters all clamouring to claim credit for breaking the news that she was living on a CNIC issued to her “in violation of rules” – very few remembered that she is a victim of war.

By gleefully pointing at her “illegal” status in Pakistan and bunching her name with statistics of thousands of people who use the same illegal method to obtain CNICs, Pakistani journalists turned her ID card photo into a portrait of our anti-immigrant attitude.

Indeed, she is no different from the millions who were uprooted from their homes back in 1980s. Their experiences form a narrative that should have, by now, been embedded into the discourse of the war – a war shared by people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In National Geographic’s Afghan GirlA Life Revealedit was told,
“[Her husband] lives in Peshawar… and works in a bakery. Her asthma, which cannot tolerate the heat and pollution of Peshawar in summer, limits her time in the city and with her husband to the winter. The rest of the year she lives in the mountains.”

When she applied for a Pakistani identity card, her form stated that she was a resident of Nothia Qadeem in Peshawar.

Bibi is among the many children who grew up to know two homes. War made it so. Her story is not that uncommon for a refugee. So what purpose did the news story on Bibi’s CNIC “issued in violation of rules” serve – besides a fight between media houses about who broke it first?

It uncovered NADRA’s negligence (wait, that still merits as news these days?), it got four officials suspended (surprise, surprise) and the ID cards issued to her and some men who probably are not her sons were cancelled. It told us that the famed Afghan Girl is no different from a petty Pashtun immigrant – you know, the one who is always up to something illegal.

It also hinted at the alarming attitude towards Afghan refugees after the attack on APS in Peshawar on December 16. The UNHCR and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees say 19,000 Afghans returned home in 2013 and 4,800 refugees were repatriated in 2014. UNHCR further says that nine times as many Afghan refugees repatriated from Pakistan in January 2015 than in December 2014.

I remember struggling to keep count of reports of Afghan refugees being detained and sent off to “undisclosed locations” in days following the announcement of the National Action Plan. I, therefore, stand with the Human Rights Watch when it speaks against forceful return of refugees from Pakistan. The government must remember its obligation to protect all Afghans, including those not registered as refugees.

A leading media organisation says it believes that,
“Repatriation should be voluntary — keeping in mind that without peace in war-torn Afghanistan, the refugees may not want to return.”

Further, it says better border management is needed because,
“People have been known to take money offered by the UN, leave for Afghanistan and soon find their way back to Pakistan. Additionally, there has been no coherent refugee policy at the national level, which is hampering efforts to effectively address the problem.”

The first place for policymakers to start, in my humble opinion, would be to understand that the “problem” runs deeper than border management and illegal ID cards. It is of a shared history, language and struggle. Together, they form an identity that transcends borders.

It is not hard to guess why they come back. The Afghan economy is in tatters, unemployment is rampant and security has not improved. Meanwhile in Pakistan, refugees now have families, professions and a life rebuilt from scratch.
Aima Khosa The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @aimamk
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Prashant | 6 years ago | Reply "Telling credentials is not equal to giving self credits. Learn it." Well, a person comments on an issue and you comment on the person himself, you must know the credentials of every person on this planet. I stick to my statement though, look around and you would know how many around the world believe the same and you would know who is building an illogical argument. You do not need to learn anything from your neighbour and neither do you have to accept everything your neighbour tells you, time will tell who took the right path and who did not.
Asy ma wail ! | 6 years ago I wasnt speaking of your credentials, I was telling you mine :) If by everyone else in the world you mean you, your few online emo friends, a few ill informed neighbors from the street you live in, your milk-man and the barber you go to- then of course, I am contradicting the worlds opinion, otherwise, the people having some real hold on the subject of Afghanistan would tell you something different than what is popular in your world I just defined :) - Secondly, make no mistakes - I am not taking Pakistan out of the blame, I am just telling you the root cause, as well as, there was a whole lot of countries playing there and in the last..Learn to condemn the US for being the real creator of the greater mess, of which Taliban happened to be a small portion. Yes, Lets agree on the "Time will tell" thing :)
Prashant | 6 years ago | Reply "You really do have a grudge with Pakistan and view everything from your narrow terror-centered perspective." Yes, I would take much lesser interest in Pakistan the day I get to know that the likes of Hafiz Saeed have been permanently abandoned by Pakistan.
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