Refugees as stakeholders

Taliban violence against the Afghan state threatens to jeopardise the programme of voluntary repatriation of refugees from this side of the border. The beginning of this week alone has seen multiple attacks killing close to 120; mainly police officers and soldiers.

Thus Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s upcoming visit to Kabul will focus on the deteriorating security situation across the western border. It must, too, explore the implications of this on Afghan refugees residing here in Pakistan. The new set-up has effected a welcome U-turn on the previous government’s planned enforced repatriation of some 2.7 million (documented and undocumented) refugees. With Prime Minister Imran Khan promising that any return will be on a voluntary basis.

This is good news for several reasons. For starters, of the 1.4 million refugees registered with the local authorities, 74 percent are second or third generation. Meaning that they were either born in Pakistan or else are the children of refugees born here. And still there is talk of them going ‘home’. Secondly, Afghan refugees-turned-local-businessmen say that they have pumped more than $4 billion into the local economy in terms of investment in various sectors. Thus while many are willing to return — they naturally require guarantees of having these inputs repaid. As part of a realistic timeframe to wind up commercial concerns.

To be sure, there are those who do want to go back. Many are keen to help rebuild their country. Others want to see out their old age in the company of relatives and kinsmen. Indeed, this year has already seen some 100,000 Afghans make the journey across the border. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assists in de-registering their refuge status and hands over $200 in cash as a resettlement grant. When added up, this does not amount to very much at all; either on the financial or facilitation front. Especially considering that what awaits them is a recognised and bloody war zone.

This is not to belittle UNHCR efforts towards this end. But it is to point fingers at the international community; which has done little over the years to compensate Pakistan in the wake of global manoeuvres to destabilise Afghanistan while displacing local peoples for geo-strategic gains. Thereby allowing successive governments in Islamabad to scapegoat refugees for attacks across the Af-Pak border while accusing them of harbouring militant elements.

Thus in addition to being raised during the Foreign minister’s talks with the Ghani government — the refugee question must also be spotlighted at all multilateral forums focusing on bringing peace to Afghanistan and reconciling with the Taliban. Forty years is far too long to be effectively stateless when there is no real reason for peace to remain forever elusive. Similarly, it is too long for a developing nation to host refugees it will not naturalise. For no one in this country wants to see Pakistan go the way of Fortress Europe with its mass hysteria of racist propaganda campaigns; demonising those fleeing NATO bullets and bombs raining down on the MENA region.

All those sincerely advocating for a secure and stable Afghanistan must do so while recognising refugees from that country as legitimate stakeholders. Is it not about time?  *

Published in Daily Times, September 11th 2018.