The Pakistan-Afghanistan situation is a much detested thorn in the side of American foreign policy. The issue is volatile and exceedingly complex. What disturbs me, however, is the absence of one critical issue from grander schemes on how to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan — the refugees.
The image of the dispossessed Afghan takes multiple forms in the eyes of Pakistanis: the dirty-faced garbage picker with mismatched shoes, the crusty-eyed child selling facial tissues from car to car and the prepubescent girl who shaves her head to look like a boy so she can beg for money safely on hostile streets.
Currently, Pakistan harbours upwards of 1.6 million displaced Afghans, who build their homes, earn their livelihoods and educate their children on Pakistani soil. Despite growing discontent among local populations about sharing limited resources with an increasingly settled refugee population, Pakistan has decided to continue playing host, recently extending the repatriation deadline for refugees. Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) continues to encourage voluntary repatriation, offering grants of $150 to refugees crossing the border back to Afghanistan.
The repatriation policy potentially exemplifies the classic conundrum of international aid efforts being divorced from grassroots reality. When I spoke to a social worker who uses vocational schemes to provide economic uplift to Karachi’s Afghan refugees, I was able to gauge the actual effectiveness of international humanitarian initiatives. Most of the refugees she serves are unaware of UNHCR’s $150 offer for voluntary repatriation.
Karachi’s refugee population is scattered in bastis around the city. Karachi is a tough and unpitying city even for locals. For the refugees, add to the existing list of problems a language barrier, war trauma, and inability to find proper housing or develop sustainable livelihoods. These refugees don’t need or want the incentive of UNHCR’s charity handout. What they truly covet is schools and safety for their children, sustainable livelihoods, access to medical and legal services and a chance to feel secure in their homeland. Without this, there is no convincing them to cross back into Afghanistan.
So, we need to come to terms with a concrete fact: the Afghan refugees are in Pakistan for the long haul and will most likely soon increase in number. With the upcoming elections in Afghanistan and exit of US troops by 2014, instability and a consequent fresh flow of refugees to Pakistan is highly likely. Pakistan will shortly be under added pressure to provide these fleeing, disempowered people with sanctuary.
We need to start talking solutions.
In the refugee situation, we witness a rare occasion for Pakistan and America to work hand in hand to accomplish something that concretely improves human lives as well as contributes to the best interests of both countries. Yet, humanitarian solutions continue to be put on the back-burner in top-level foreign policy debates. A starving, grieving population is more likely to be caught up in the throes of extremist philosophy than one that is nurtured and healing.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon asserts, “The long-term challenges of balancing the economic dimensions of the security transition within the broader Kabul process must be linked to the delivery of real and tangible improvements in the lives of ordinary Afghan citizens.”
The Pakistan and US governments need to put their misunderstandings aside and start working together — the Afghan people deserve the promise of opportunity and a chance to rebuild their broken lives.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2013.
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