President Ashraf Ghani’s visit has resulted in some respite for Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan. Although refugees were supposed to have exited the country by June 30 of this year, the federal government decided to demonstrate extended goodwill towards Afghan citizens. This has several implications, both positive and negative. While on the surface, the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) has acted magnanimously amid renewed positive talks between Islamabad and Kabul, Pakistan, with its own status of a developing country, is not entirely in a position to house refugees.
The Taliban and the Afghan government are scheduled to soon meet in Doha for peace talks. It is a sensitive time for relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the US which is in the middle of an exit strategy from Afghanistan. It appears rather diplomatic that our government would continue to house 1.4 million refugees despite years of criticism from the public and politicians that one way to start solving Pakistan’s problems is by reducing the population burden and defining the status refugees, as well as their civic privileges. Given the upcoming Doha talks, however, Pakistan wants to remain in Afghanistan’s good books since peace in Afghanistan means greater stability for Pakistan, too.
Incredulously, however, one must also recognise the timing on the economic front. The government has just released a budget highlighting gargantuan deficits and dues to lenders. Economically speaking, Pakistani citizens are already struggling financially and the decision to keep the extra 1.4 million people will result in greater financial constraints. Repatriation needs to be a priority in this issue. While millions of citizens have been returned to Afghanistan, many still remain. Voluntary repatriation needs to be publicised more. With such a high number of refugees still in the country, it seemed unrealistic to make them exit by the original deadline. The process will need to be streamlined so that the high volume of refugees can be returned to Afghanistan within the newly allotted timeline.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2019.