Afghan Refugees – Pakistan’s Last Shot at Humanity

Those in the highest echelons of power in Pakistan critiqued President Trump’s recent executive order – which imposes travel restrictions on people from 7 predominantly Muslim majority countries – saying that it stands against American ideals and values of tolerance and acceptance.  

These officials seem to be conveniently forgetful of Pakistan’s own response to its migrant crisis. Perhaps they should acquaint themselves to the situation in Pakistan in December 2014, when the Khyber Pakhtunkhawa Government declared a complete expulsion of Afghan refugees from the province within a month’s time, in the aftermath of the APS Peshawar attack. Although the deadline was later shifted ahead of the decided time, the premise of the action remained – that Afghan refugees were primarily responsible for terrorist activities in Pakistan.

Last month, Human Rights Watch released a scathing critique of Pakistan’s deportation policies. In mid-2016, Pakistan took up the bold initiative to expel all Afghan refugees who had settled in Pakistan, which include 1.5 million documented, and 1 million undocumented refugees. Already, according to HRW reports, 600,000 refugees have been forced to return to their homeland. The word forced is important, because as the report states, it is important that we “should end the fiction that the mass forced return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan is, in fact, mass voluntary return.”

Refugees are provided a miserly $400 on their return – a small sum to compensate for returning to a land toiled by war and poverty and starting a new life there all over again. In fact, 40% of the refugees expelled in the past year were undocumented according to the World Food Programme to whom even the $400 remuneration doesn’t apply. Stories of those returning to their ‘homeland’ – especially considering that many second generation refugees have little connection to Afghanistan - have only confirmed suspicions that these refugees are returning to a life more miserable than the one they left behind.

That is surprising, considering how life was like for these refugees in Pakistan. Afghan refugees have been consistently subject to a second-class citizen treatment. As an extensive report by Al Jazeera describes, “Regardless of their legal status, Afghans complain of being refused appointments and medication at public hospitals, forced relocation to government-managed refugee camps, lessening job opportunities and a perpetually threatened atmosphere where police can raze shops to the ground, loot and demand bribe on a daily basis.” When the drive for expelling the refugees started up last year, there were reports of arbitrary arrests, harassment at the hands of law enforcement and landlords cancelling leases, a de facto ‘expulsion attitude’ to reinforce the idea that Afghans aren’t welcome in Pakistan anymore.

This hatred – or indifference – is somewhat premised on the idea that the Afghan refugees who poured in after the Afghan War in the 80’s are chiefly responsible for the terrorism that has plagued Pakistan in recent times. In June 2016, the adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz said that Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan were ‘safe havens’ for terrorists. Consistent statements like these have permeated the idea into the public consciousness.

That is not to say that no Afghan refugee has ever been complicit in terror, or that Pakistan as a sovereign state doesn’t have the right to protect its borders. But by creating a blanket expulsion of refugees we do nothing but reinforce the regime of fear in Pakistan that is the root of its most pressing problems.

The Afghan refugee crisis is Pakistan’s best chance to espouse the most admirable principles of its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Evidently, it is too much to ask to apply these principles of tolerance and acceptance to Christian and Hindu minorities, whose cadavers in the street are a testament to Pakistan’s failure as a nation. Perhaps it is even too much to ask for protection for the Ahmadi sect, in their peaceful quest to be recognized as Muslims.

But why does Pakistani society condemn even Afghan refugees to this fate?  They speak their language and share their faith, food and culture. They even look exactly like them. It is not too much to ask to accept these people. We have to start somewhere. And in accepting the unknown in a time of fear and hostility, perhaps Pakistan can teach the world a lesson it desperately needs to learn.