Successive political crises and conflicts in Afghanistan have correlated with millions of refugees arriving in Pakistan. While one hopes that the people of Afghanistan, like people in any other country, enjoy peace and prosperity, there is an increasing likelihood of an internal conflict. The impact will be borne disproportionately by Afghans who are poor and already struggling. Like anyone willing to protect themselves and their loved ones, these people will be forced to move and seek safety. Whether we like to read history or not, the reality is that in case of an internal conflict, there will be a humanitarian crisis with forced migration. The last few times it happened, we were both unprepared and uninterested in preparation. Let us try to do things differently this time.
First, we may like to play to the gallery of our base, imagine a world which does not exist and say that we will keep our borders closed, but in reality, that is highly unlikely. The nature of the border, the social ties between people on both sides, and the recent history tell us that a completely closed border in case of an internal conflict is not going to happen. A humanitarian crisis at our border would force us to act impulsively, sooner or later, and those impulses would not serve us well. It is better to plan with empathy, thought and a proactive attitude.
From a policy perspective, we should know that xenophobia as a policy does not work. Not only is it vile and vulgar, it is also a terrible strategy in the short and long term. The premise of our xenophobic impulse is also factually incorrect. Data shows that refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants are not the cause of increase in crime. This may not be what we like to believe — especially since we are always eager to find scapegoats — but statistics and our imagination are not on the same page. We may like to imagine Afghan refugees as criminals and people who bring disease and misery, but that is unfortunately not backed by systematic data. In the realm of health, some of our own work in partnership with hospitals and health centres in Pakistan has shown that Afghan refugee camps are not the reservoirs of infectious diseases and the refugees themselves are not likely to be sicker (from infectious diseases) than the host population. That said, refugees do face increased trauma, torture, harassment and violence both within the camps and from the host population. Beyond the inhumanity, xenophobia creates exclusion and radicalisation and alienates the possibility of working together and finding robust, ethical and evidence-based solutions.
Recognising the likely humanitarian challenges and the small window that exists, we have to be proactive. This means simulating various scenarios of a likely arrival of traumatised refugees and thinking about resource allocation in case of the humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, this also means mobilising regional and international resources to provide ethical care to the vulnerable and ensuring that the host community does not feel disenfranchised. International aid, historically, has been reactive and slow. We should push for that to change and mobilise international resources that can be deployed efficiently and effectively. This would require both diplomacy and clarity of mission. In a world devastated by Covid-19, a slow response could be devastating both for those forced to migrate and for the host population.
Indeed, we should hope, and work for a scenario where none of this is needed, and Afghans are able to live their lives in peace. But should things unfold in a way that brings complex challenges for them, we should recognise that empathy, planning and a focus on human dignity is both the right thing and the right policy.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2021.
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