Pot calling the kettle black over the refugee issue

Besides recent generosity shown by Germany, all other European countries have been very stingy with accepting refugees

Syed Mohammad Ali March 03, 2017
The writer is a development anthropologist currently based in Fairfax, Virginia, and teaches at Georgetown and George Washington universities

Pakistan has become the subject of criticism in the West again, this time with reference to its treatment of Afghan refugees. My aim here is not to justify, by any means, the coercion of refugees, or trying to compel them to forcibly return to their unstable homeland. Instead, I intend to situate the Afghan refugee problem within a much broader context.

According to Human Rights Watch, since the Pakistani government ordered all Afghan migrants and refugees to leave the country this past year, it has mounted a campaign of intimidation, which has so far led to the eviction of nearly 600,000 people. The Guardian newspaper in the UK has also reported stories of police harassment, arbitrary arrests and incidents of communities that had housed refugees for decades suddenly turning against Afghan families.

Even the UN system has come under attack for its apparent complicity with the Pakistan government. By not denouncing Pakistan’s current mass eviction of Afghans as refoulement (the return of refugees to a country where they have reason to fear persecution) the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is particularly being criticised for failing in its duty to protect refugees. By handing out $400 cash grants to each returning registered refugee, the UNHCR has been blamed for effectively facilitating the process of forced return.

However, a reality check is in order here. Afghans in Pakistan constitute one of the world’s largest refugee communities, housing until recently an estimated 1.5 million registered and 1 million unregistered Afghan refugees. Turkey has only very recently overtaken Pakistan as the country which hosts the largest refugee population within its territory in the world. Pakistan still hosts the second-largest refugee population in the world. Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan are also on the list of countries with large (over 0.5 million) refugee populations. It is the so-called developing world, which still hosts over 85 per cent of the world’s refugee population.

Besides the recent generosity shown by Germany, all other European countries have been very stingy with accepting refugee applications, including the UK. Less than 70,000 persons were admitted to the United States as refugees during 2015, and now the incoming administration has announced a temporary ban on refugees. Australia’s humanitarian intake has remained meagre over the last 20 years, with fewer than 15,000 people accepted every year. Moreover, Australia introduced mandatory detention in 1992, whereby migrants entering Australia are detained until their claim to remain in Australia is processed. Asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat are diverted to offshore processing centres in the Pacific island nation of Nauru and another one in Papua New Guinea. Rights group say conditions in the PNG and Nauru camps are poor, with cramped conditions, and a lack of basic facilities. Military vessels patrol Australian waters and have also been known to intercept migrant boats, towing them back to Indonesia or sending asylum seekers back in inflatable dinghies or lifeboats. Such nations certainly do not have the moral high ground to criticise Pakistan’s treatment of Afghan refugees.

The Pakistan government should certainly rethink sending Afghan refugees back home against their will, given that so many of them have been in our country since decades. The implications for sending more refugees back than Afghanistan can currently absorb implies serious suffering for the refugees, and broader instability for Afghanistan as well.

Rights-based groups in Western countries do acknowledge the dismal record of their own countries in dealing with the global refugee crises. However, when it comes to criticising Pakistan, such groups must also simultaneously reflect on the failure of Nato in stabilising the situation in Afghanistan, and take into account the lacklustre support the West has provided to the resource-strapped Pakistani government, for the specific purpose of accommodating and addressing the plight of displaced Afghan refugees for the past 35 years.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 3rd, 2017.

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