Under the burden of refugees

Published: June 22, 2016
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For the second year running, Pakistan has come in at second as the world’s second largest host for refugees.

At 1.6 million Afghans (and another 1 million unregistered), it is behind only Turkey who hosts some 2.5 million refugees, mostly those fleeing Syria as per the latest UN report. But for the better part of three decades, Pakistan topped this list.

What this means in real terms is that a country, that was struggling with the weight of its own expanding population and stumbling economy, has for over 30 years cared for a large number of refugees. Providing them with food, shelter, education, employment and other amenities of life – and bears the third highest cost of refugees in the world at 313 Afghans costing a dollar of its GDP. Such is the case of this refugee population that it increased last year by 100,000, largely due to natural growth of these communities.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz told the UN Commissioner on Refugees that Pakistan can no longer bear this burden which is not only exacting socio-economically but has also caused security concerns. Repatriation of all Afghan refugees, Aziz emphasised, is a top priority for the country.

To host someone, especially a neighbour, is considered obligatory under Pakistani culture. A duty of sorts. But there comes a time when overburdened, a host loses such chivalrous notions. This is far more apparent at a time when the government is struggling to create jobs and ensure resource security for its own population. More so, the economic and security situation in Afghanistan is far better today than it was 10 years ago.

The pace of repatriation, however, has been slow. Last year, only 55,700 Afghan refugees returned home, largely owing to UNHCR assistance. Islamabad has rightly called for this rate to be sped up.

It is now up to Kabul to ensure that more of its citizens, of which some 2.7 million are seeking asylum worldwide, return home.

However, this does not come with its own share of irony. At least 264,000 Pakistanis are currently seeking refuge in Afghanistan, fleeing a military operation in the tribal areas. As it focuses on returning Afghan refugees, Islamabad must ensure safe return of these Pakistanis too.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 22nd, 2016.

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