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Afghan refugees and Pakistan: separating fact from fiction

Hosting refugees and security imperatives, there’s a strong case for repatriation to Afghanistan

By Inam Ul Haque |
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PUBLISHED January 07, 2024

There are a lot of misperceptions and confusion around Pakistan’s policies and support for Afghan refugees (AR). The following discourse is an effort to contextualise this humanitarian issue, highlighting factual situation; effects on Afghan diaspora being refugee, and Pakistani society; the need for repatriation and its linkage with the Afghan Government’s policies, and public pronouncements of the Afghan Interim Government (AIG) aka the Islamic Emirate (IEA); and the shift in Pakistan’s Afghan policy.

The factual situation

Pakistan hosted refugees of all ethnicities from all over Afghanistan well before the invasion of their country by the former USSR in 1979. After the Saur Revolution in Afghanistan consequent to the Soviet invasion in 1979, this figure peaked at over 5 million. And Pakistan was host to some of the largest refugee population anywhere in the world. After liberation of Afghanistan first from the USSR and later from the US/Coalition Forces, many Afghan refugees have voluntarily left for their country. Pakistan has helped and facilitated such repatriation.

SAFRON (Ministry of States and Frontier Regions), with the explicit mission “To administer affairs of … and matters relating to Afghan refugees in Pakistan” has dealt with the refugees going back and forth through AR Commissionerate with presence in all provinces since 1979. As per SAFRON Yearbook 2022-23 corroborating the UNHCR’s June 2023 report, there are currently 1.3 million ‘registered’ Afghan refugees (13,33,749 to be precise), and around 0.7 million unregistered, mostly ‘unwilling’ to register. The influx after the IEA takeover of Kaul in August 2021 was 0.6 million. Out of this figure around 0.5 million have been repatriated since November 1, 2023. The government had extended the repatriation deadline for ‘illegals’ up to December 31, 2023.

Government of Pakistan in collaborations with the UNHCR has issued ACC (Afghan CitizenshipCard) and undertaken POR (Proof of Registration) drives to document and register the ‘illegals.’ However, this exercise has largely remained inconclusive due to unwillingness of this cadre (the illegals) who are scattered all over Pakistan. This segment is of utmost worry to our LEAs as it contains RAW, former KhaD, IS, TTP members and infiltrated sleeper cells etc.

Ironically Pakistan’s support for continuing to host this immense burden is never acknowledged and appreciated. Given the fact that Pakistan is not signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, it is not obligated to host such large numbers of refugees over such extended periods of time. The refugees are provided all assistance and help, like permission to work, travel, acquire education and rent places purely on ‘humanitarian grounds’ under Islamic amity, Pashtun traditions and neighbourly brotherhood.

For repatriation, Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement in Brussels in 2003 emphasising ‘gradualism’ and ‘voluntarism’ in the process, which Pakistan has hitherto ensured. In 2012, SSAR (Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees) agreement added Iran to the repatriation process. SSAR stipulates ‘international support’ for voluntary repatriation; ‘sustainable integration’ of refugees in Afghanistan; and support for host countries. Sadly, the international community has not been very forthcoming due to donor fatigue and the complications of dealing through/around the AIG after 2021.

Benefits and implications

The biggest advantage accrued to Afghan diaspora in Pakistan has been ‘exposure’. Afghans especially the rural Afghans, were traditionally and historically enamoured by the bustling urban life of the Subcontinent, which was relatively prosperous and easy-going. Migration to Pakistan, however tragic its genesis, provided Afghans with unmatched opportunities in safe and secure living.

Refugees greatly benefited from the educational opportunities in Pakistani schools, colleges, and universities with women in particular, benefiting from both government-supported initiatives and private educational facilities. They enjoy free enrolment in government schools, and Afghans have greatly benefited from this opportunity with girls getting maximum advantage. They continue to acquire vocational training and skill-development in collaboration with or without UNHCR support. Many Afghan girls and women are gainfully employed by various businesses, especially in the industrial hub of Karachi etc.

Pakistan, meanwhile, through its meagre resources has helped the Afghan brethren through numerous projects in health and Medicare especially in mental health, psychological support, maternity and child support etc. Hospitals in KP, Balochistan and elsewhere provide Medicare to them that still is non-existent in Afghanistan. NGOs have extended crucial medical, health and sanitation support to their doorstep in AR camps and elsewhere.

Pakistan’s open arms policy has provided safe second home to most Afghans including the IEA leadership, whenever they needed it. During the conduct of both jihads, their families were safely ensconced in Pakistan. The venerable Mullah Omar, the founding member of Afghan Taliban Movement was treated in Karachi hospitals. Refugees in Pakistan were never restricted to the camps like in Iran, and they built their own communities in cities like Karachi and other Pakistani cities and towns. Politically, Quetta shura became a nom de guerre for IEA in exile.

Socially, intermingling has resulted in enhanced understanding, and influences on food, diet, and dress (both ways). Afghan cricket team was born in its Pakistani nursery.

Economically, the Afghan brethren massively benefited from opportunities in Pakistan. KP and Balochistan in particular, hosted town-sized refugee camps with Afghans doing thriving businesses in and out of the camps. Pakistan remained and remains a staging ground for more affluent Afghans to process their cases for migration to mostly US and other EU countries. A staggering 60,000 Afghans (including 25,000 or so for the US alone) who supported Coalition Forces in different capacities remain under process in Pakistan for relocation to third countries. If all the above does not constitute exemplary Islamic brotherhood and unneighbourly goodness, then one wonders what it would be!

Whereas most Afghans are peace-loving simple folks… well integrated in the rural and semi-rural communities of KP and Balochistan…there have been repeated instances of Afghans citizens involved in terrorist activities, suicide bombing, street crimes, kidnapping for ransom, murders, robberies, drug trafficking and money laundering etc. Proliferation of ‘Kalashnikov Culture’ is a cliché associated with Afghan refugees’ stay in Pakistan.

The most painful aspect for common citizenry in Pakistan remains the perceived ‘ungratefulness’ of the Afghan diaspora, and especially the ranking leadership in Kabul. Although over-expectation from ordinary Afghans about ‘returning favour (shegara)’, amounts to not understanding Afghan socio-anthropological underpinnings, such scholarly nuances are not understood by ordinary folks in Pakistan. Most common Pakistanis use the black and white binary in Pak-Afghan relations, and that does not justify persistent harangues from the Afghan side. At the State level, the “constants (imperatives)” of a common future in Pak-Afghan bilateralism still reinforces and complements other factors like geography, demography, and economics; there are some nagging “variables” like the Durand Line, border Fence and above all the TTP that have the potential to irreparably damage the bilateral relations. And that it is where the IEA needs to comprehend and act…now and not later.

The argument forwarded by most Afghans that Pakistan was bound by Islamic amity and neighbourly brotherhood to host them, and that Pakistan did no favour to them as Afghans fought Pakistan’s fight on the Afghan soil when the USSR was aiming at warm waters due south, is paradoxical. First, under the same Islamic amity and neighbourly brotherhood, Afghanistan should not continue to host anti-Pakistan elements on Afghan soil, irrespective of the circumstances. If unable and/or unwilling, it should – at least - restrict their anti-Pakistan activities. Second, third when former British India was declared Darul-Harb (home with warfare) by Deobandi Ulema in 19th Century, urging Indian Muslims to migrate to Afghanistan being Darul Amn (home with peace), those who migrated to Afghanistan had bitter experiences. And the majority hastened to return to Darul Harb. Third, Afghanistan’s continued bellicosity is also in sheer violation of the injunctions of Pashtunwali, where shegara is to be returned with shegara. You do not harm your benefactor! PERIOD.

The TTP linkage

One of the main drivers behind the recent repatriation of Afghan refugees ‘evidently’ is the TTP attacks involving Afghan nationals on LEAs from the safety of their sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan, ostensibly with the ‘benevolent neglect’ - if not outright support of the IEA. Although Sarfaraz Ahmed Bangulzai, the recently surrendered Baloch leader who lived for over 15 years in Afghanistan in exile, accuses IEA of aiding and abetting such anti-Pakistan terrorism. One also wonders at the availability and use of sophisticated weapons and equipment (left by the US/NATO forces and captured by the IEA), recently by TTP and Baloch insurgents in their attacks against Pakistan’s LEAs.

Although the rationale behind the IEA not forcibly evicting TTP from Afghan soil - like Islamic camaraderie being brothers in recent jihad, IEA’s potential split on TTP issue etc - has been amply discussed by this scribe. And such discussion lays bare the IEA’s inability and unwillingness to undertake anti-TTP action. Under the circumstances, the least the IEA can do is to restrain TTP from launching further attacks in Pakistan. And if and when, the right time comes, and Pakistan-Afghanistan and TTP seek a negotiated settlement of some sort…as a basic and enduring ingredient, TTP’s ‘black’ cadre should stay on the Afghan soil continuing to enjoy the Afghan hospitality, with some financial support from Pakistan, as agreed. Overtime these ‘irreconcilables’ would age and fade away in the Afghan mountains, like the Arab/other fighters before them.

For now, a well-publicised enforceable fatwa (decree), unlike the previous one, by the Ameer-ul-Momineen, the venerated Moulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada would surely restrain TTP’s anti-Pakistan terrorism in tracks.

Need for repatriation

Although moral issues like refugee hosting should not be linked with security imperatives, it is unfortunately the case, and the responsibility squarely rests with the Afghan side. Hence, there is a strong case for the Afghan refugees to be repatriated back to Afghanistan notwithstanding linkage with the TTP issue and Pakistan’s angry reaction.

First, from a legalistic perspective, Pakistan is not obligated to host them indefinitely as discussed. Especially since the unparalleled generosity extended on humanitarian grounds, was not very well reciprocated. Second, Pakistan is well within its rights to assert itself against illegal aliens and secure its borders. Third, with dwindling international support, Pakistan cannot endure this burden indefinitely especially under its current precarious economic conditions. Although Afghan refugees do contribute directly and indirectly to Pakistani economy, such contributions remain limited. Fourth, IEA claims to have restored peace all over Afghanistan, so with no war and violence around, Afghan refugees can return in safety. Fifth, their reintegration back home is the sole responsibility of IEA and UNHCR etc, and not Pakistan.

Sixth, the continued bellicosity of certain ranking IEA officials especially the one, self-appointed Ster Janraal Mobin on Afghan TV talk shows has poisoned the overall situation, shifting mood within Pakistan, even among the advocates of Afghan amity. It is believed these functionaries enjoy discreet ‘neglect’ if not support of the senior leadership… if not the highest one. Unfortunately, the brunt of their unwarranted and misplaced diatribes is being faced by the hapless common Afghans, desperate to make a living in Pakistan. Gallup November 2023 polls point to a resounding 84% of Pakistanis strongly approving of the government’s policy to repatriate Afghan refugees. Hence the future environs are likely to be inhospitable for their continued stay in Pakistan. Although the mode, manner and methods of their repatriation can be fine-tuned.

Shift in Pakistan’s Afghan policy

On November 28, Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO) summoned head of the Afghan diplomatic mission to convey four explicit demands; a) extradition of Hafiz Gul Bahadur of North Waziristan District to Pakistan, whose TTP component group carried out attack on a military convoy in Bakka Khel area of Bannu on November 26; b) full investigation and action against perpetrators and abettors; c) immediate “verifiable actions” against all terrorist groups with sanctuaries on Afghan soil; and d) prevent the use of Afghan soil for terrorism against Pakistan.

Following on from the above, in what is widely believed to be a policy shift, on December 21, 2023, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative at the UN, Ambassador Munir Akram declared that any process of engagement with the AIG should be contingent upon its credible action against terrorist outfits, including the TTP. Pakistan has discernibly moved away from pleading the IEA case regionally and internationally, where it always emphasised engagement with Kabul.

Loss of Pakistan’s avowed advocacy regionally and beyond, where Pakistan always reiterated that IEA was a reality despite reservations of the global community and suggested engagement, would be a loss to the IEA that is more significant than it can or want to realise. Pakistan has other potent leverages also, that can be deployed if Kabul cannot restrain the TTP from its murderous attacks and rein-in the wayward ranking officials with big mouths but little understanding of their own good.

The way forward

Without in anyway, criticising the current carefully executed policy of repatriating of ‘illegal’ Afghans (not expelling or deporting Afghan refugees except a minuscule minority in jails or unwilling to go back), Pakistan should allow Afghan refugees the option of legal residence in Pakistan under international law, continued humanitarian empathy and unneighbourly amity. There should be a mechanism for those willing to ‘purchase’ Pakistani citizenship through investments in foreign currency, as is the case in most countries. Repatriation be in phases, as per practice in vogue, with no leniency for the ‘illegals’.

We need to retain our ‘strategic dividend’ vis-à-vis Afghanistan. And restart engagement with Afghanistan at the highest level – civil and military - besides conducting aggressive ‘religious diplomacy’ with puritanical Qandahar.

Afghan leaders need to take to heart that Pakistan will not compromise on the TTP issue this time around. Unnecessary press iterations on the issue would not be helpful. They need to broach their ‘practicable’ TTP-related proposals at the highest level with Pakistani interlocutors and resolve this issue with all seriousness that it warrants. They know what to do. The January 3, 2024 visit by an IEA delegation, led by Kandahar Governor Mullah Sherin Akhund, will help move forward on issues, as Mullah Akhund, an influential figure in Shura has ears of the respected Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.

Both countries - minus the legacy TTP issue - can jointly reap immense economic and social benefits. There is no stopping other than mindset and recalcitration.


Inam Ul Haque is a retired Pakistan Army major general who writes on defence, global affairs and political sociology. He can be reached at tayyarinam@hotmail.com and his Twitter handle @20_Inam

All facts and information are the sole responsibility of the writer