Strategies for their Peaceful Repatriation
It is more than 35 years that the Afghans have been living in Pakistan. They first came here after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 and the ensuing civil war and precarious security situation in the country. The second wave started after the US–led military campaign in Afghanistan in 2001. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans left their homeland and got shelter in the neighbouring countries, i.e. Pakistan and Iran. More than 3 million refugees rushed to Pakistan whereas more than 1 million chose to go to Iran. Afghan refugees in Pakistan were accorded honour and love by the state of Pakistan and its people.
According to UNHCR, after the gradual return of the Afghans to their country, Pakistan still hosts almost 1.6 million registered and another million unregistered Afghan refugees — the largest protracted refugee population globally. The registered refugees are either living in refugee camps or slums with most of them found in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA.
Living in Pakistan for such a long period, they have established their own businesses in different cities, actively contributing to the country’s economy. They have been educated in Pakistani institutions and provided medical facilities in Pakistani hospitals. Although, they have been honoured by the local populace throughout their stay in Pakistan, they are being increasingly being termed as a burden on economy, environment and the society of Pakistan. They are living in a constant “Protracted Refugee Situation” in Pakistan. According to the definition given by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “A protracted refugee situation is one in which refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo. Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile. A refugee in this situation is often unable to break free from enforced reliance on external assistance.”
The Afghan refugees in Pakistan have developed different, legitimate or illegitimate, ways for earning their livelihood. But still they have to face many hindrances from officials and local people in their day-to-day economic activities. They have been tortured, arrested and body-searched during various raids and at check posts across the country due to the suspicious activities of some of their compatriots. The fateful incident of 16th December 2014, at Peshawar’s Army Public School has created a sense of extreme vulnerability among the Afghan refugees because, as usual, the whole curse was put on them though the responsibility of the attack was openly accepted by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). However, Pakistani security agencies have, time and again, nabbed many Afghans involved in terrorist activities.
Although a large number of Afghan refugees have been repatriated to their homeland peacefully, Pakistani officials also started, earlier this year, their forceful repatriation in a clear violation of the Tripartite Agreement signed by Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR. It has also adversely affected the developing Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relations. Previously, various strategies have been drawn up to peacefully repatriate Afghan refugees, however due the uncertain security environment in Afghanistan most of them refuse to go back.
In order to end the “Protracted Refugee Situation,” of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, there is a dire need that Pakistan and Afghanistan hold debates on the issue with taking into consideration the recommendations of UNHCR. Both governments should develop a consensus on a dead line for their peaceful repatriation. UNHCR must also play its positive role in this regard otherwise the “4 R’s” — Repatriation, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction — will remain its elusive objectives. Media must also highlight the protracted situation of refugees and should create awareness on the need of developing strategies to motivate Afghans to go back to their native land. Incentives can be provided by both the governments to motivate them for their voluntary repatriation.
Afghanistan’s current National Unity Government should take urgent steps for the durable and sustainable repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration of their refugees. Those who have no home in Afghanistan can be settled at temporary camps under UNHCR’s supervision until their own homes are built. The Afghan government should formulate such policies which encourage them to become the active Afghan citizens so that they may play their role in building their country’s economy, infrastructure, and also in stabilizing the Afghan society. It will result in good brotherly relations between both neighbouring countries.
The writer is an Assistant Research Coordinator at the Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad.