18 May, 2007
By Farzana Shah
The government of Pakistan has decided to repatriate all the Afghan refugees in three years by the end of 2009. However, looking at the political situation in Afghanistan and other problems at this side of the border it seems a task difficult to accomplish. On the other hand Iran has already started extraditing about a million Afghan refugees from her soil by force and announced to complete the entire repatriation by March 2008. This has caused much concern to the Afghan government as it is beyond it to rehabilitate them all in the given time frame.
If compared the two host countries and the pattern of handling the refugees by each, it comes to the fore that Pakistan made many mistakes that have led to the emergence of many problems for her. After the Soviet invasion of 1979 Pakistan had to face a great influx of the Afghan refugees as millions of them crossed over to Pakistan. They were not only welcomed with open arms on grounds of Islamic brotherhood and the Pukhtoon ethnicity but they were also not properly accounted for and documented. It was so due to their pouring in incessantly in huge numbers and the absence of proper infrastructure to keep their records. They were allowed to spread all over Pakistan with their main concentrations in the provinces of NWFP and Baluchistan. Some of them not only brought their cattle with them but also their vehicles, some as large as 16 and 18 wheelers. They took their cattle to the sprawling grazing pastures and the vehicles soon started plying all over Pakistan. Since their was no check on their movement it was quite common for most of them to have three of four Identity Cards issued from different districts of Pakistan. It was only with the introduction of the Machine Readable ID cards that some count of theirs could be made and things started looking more manageable.
In Iran it was different from the very beginning. Each refugee was issued with an ID card and registered properly. They were restricted to the camps only and proper birth and death records maintained. They were not allowed to indulge in the business or trade. Hence she is not facing much problems in repatriating the properly accounted for refugees as compared to Pakistan.
It was only in 2005 that the Pak government in collaboration with UNHCR started the census of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan and according to that census their number was 30,49,000 (over 3 million). About 2.6 million refugees have reportedly returned to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2005 under the UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme and from March till now over 0.8 million more had returned to their homeland. However, most of the refugees repatriated return to Pakistan either by bribing the security personnel at Pak-Afghan border or by using other points of entry at the porous border.According to the UNCHR website about 1.5 million refugees went back to Afghanistan in the 90s but 2/3rd of them came back. Keeping such a ratio of the returnees in view one can imagine the number that would have returned back by now.
Though NADRA claims to have registered most of the Afghan refugees and issued Afghan origin card to them but it is also a fact that most of those who want to go back are yet to be registered. There is also the possibility of many of them having obtained not only fake Pakistani Computerized National Identity Cards but also fake Afghan origin cards. Just a month back while travelling from Peshawar to Mansehra an Afghan refugee onboard showed me a fake Afghan origin card, which he disclosed to have obtained from Bara. He boasted challengingly that no system could prove it to be a fake! Though voluntarily repatriating refugees under the UNHCR programme went through the iris test but all those illegal returnees until put through the same test can not be caught, and it is not possible to put each one of them through the iris test till the scanners are installed at all such points of entry.
The number of those who daily cross over at only two crossing points of Chaman and Torkham is stated to be about 30,000. This added to the number of those crossing the porous border points could make the figure go much higher. The growth factor should also be taken into consideration, as according to the UNDP the growth index for the Afghan refugees in Pakistan is 3 per cent per annum. Such a situation is not favourable for them in Afghanistan due to security reasons coupled with scant employment opportunities. The number of Pashtuns refugees is much higher than those of Persian speaking and it is these Pashto speaking refugees who face the economic problems more as compared to the later. Most of them are daily wages earners or have small shops. Most of them do not have the means or the facilities for the education of their children except a few, like those engaged in the transport business or other trade related activities. They prefer to stay in Pakistan as they can earn two-square meals a day here easily as compared to Afghanistan.
On the other hand most of the Persian-speaking refugees have some good businesses as one can notice easily the expensive boutiques on Arbab Road Peshawar run by them. Their children have also access to good English medium high class educational institutes due to their better economic condition.
Sending back such a large number of refugees who have got accustomed to better living environs as compared to the existing conditions in Afghanistan is not an easy task. Majority of the returned refugees converge on the big cities like Kabul, Kundus and Nigarhar only where they have some access to the employment, shelter and civic facilities akin to those found in of Pakistan. Another big impeding factor to their return is the security situation obtaining in Afghanistan. Conditions beyond Kabul are worse. No city alone, however big in size, can absorb the influx beyond its capacity. Hence the refugees have a scant hope of the good life there, which adds to their reluctance to go back.
The Pakistan economy especially that of NWFP and Baluchistan already over-burdened on account of these refugees demands for their early return. The present problem mostly confined to only two provinces is likely to trickle down to far-off villages and cities of Punjab and Sindh also. On the other hand the Afghan government isn’t ready to take them back as it has `already protested to Iran over forced repatriation of refugees and Afghan parliament has sacked Refugees Affairs Minister Akbar Akbar over the issue while no-confidence vote for Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta was hanging on a single spoilt ballot.
There are also fears that what if UNHCR abandoned the assistance to Pakistan just as it did in 1995-97 and it was only after 2001 that it took up the refugees task again. There are also talks of Refugees Management which means Pakistan has to handle them from own resources which is unlikely in a situation where her own citizens are without basic amenities of life.
There is yet another dimension to this issue; analysts believe that Iran is repatriating Afghan refugees forcibly to put pressure on US. It is understandable that most of these refugees in Iran would be from Persian-speaking North and US doesn’t want any Iranian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan, too, could also face objections from US and its allied forces if she repatriated the refugees forcibly mostly the Pashto speaking as Pashtuns are considered to be resisting the NATO forces in Afghanistan. It is, therefore, time that the Government of Pakistan realized its mistakes which it made by not checking all the loop-holes and giving a free hand to the refugees for buying the properties and spreading to every nook and corner of the country. Government should not only keep proper record of these refugees, but also probe the purchase of property by them along with devising a mechanism to send them back to Afghanistan in a phased programme over the next years. It is also the responsibility of the Afghan government to take their nationals back for their betterment because the coming generation might find the livelihood while being here as refugees but may be denied proper education and health facilities as expatriates.