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Tuesday February 27, 2024

The privilege of identity

November 12, 2023
Afghan refugees wait near the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Azakhel Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Nowshera on October 30, 2023. — AFP
Afghan refugees wait near the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Azakhel Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Nowshera on October 30, 2023. — AFP

This space is mostly reserved for the economy, but what good is an economy without society, and what is a society without a set of fundamental values. A few weeks back on a trip to Washington DC, my offspring wanted ice cream near Capitol Hill. We found an ice cream truck close by, but the gentleman operating the truck was busy offering zuhr prayers, and requested a few minutes.

We got the ice cream, and then the gentleman asked me where I am from. When I proudly told him that I am from Karachi, the gentleman broke down in tears. He went back in a time loop, recalling major (and even minor) landmarks of Karachi, from Disco Bakery, to Karsaz, and so on. He told us that he came to the US around 27 years back, and before that he completed his high school in Karachi, while his family also used to live in Karachi. He was so jovial that he refused to take any money for the ice cream, as a small note of thanks for whatever Karachi gave to him. The gentleman was an Afghan refugee who came as a child to Karachi with his family, studied, lived, and worked in the same city.

The year is now 2023, and the state wants all Afghan refugees, even those with some kind of formal status to go back. More than 1.5 million people, stripped away of their status, and being asked to go back in an extension of the Great Game – which seems to be never-ending. Pakistan was created for the refuge of the Muslims of the Subcontinent. Millions of refugees crossed the border, and were welcomed by the locals.

These refugees created a life here, and got an identity for themselves. Karachi continued to welcome everyone without any discrimination, resulting in the creation of a diverse metropolitan city, where anyone and everyone can work and create a life for themselves. Completely discounting the value of a human life or travails of ordinary people, the state continues to shape policies with broad brush strokes with little regard for the human lives that such policy may affect. The inability of almost a million people who migrated from Bangladesh living without identity cards for decades is a policy failure at human level, and so is a forced exodus of refugees back to Afghanistan.

How can a country which has refuge encoded in its value structure be so harsh to those seeking refuge? How can policymakers create policies that affect millions of people without any humane considerations? There are risks and certain elements that may pose heightened risks, but such elements exist everywhere and hence need to be weeded out through various risk mitigation exercises. Weeding out such elements by punishing millions is just a blunt inhumane policy tool.

There is also an economic impact. As a forced exodus takes place, there will also be flow of capital, as people who have established commercial enterprises over the years will start moving their capital. Similarly, an exodus will also push up aggregate demand in Afghanistan, which will inadvertently have an adverse effect on Pakistan’s balance of payments and exchange rate as leakages continue to happen across the border. The outflow of foreign currency through the border as well as informal trade of goods may only increase further, resulting in increased pressure on exchange rate, and commodity prices locally.

There is an argument that the ability of the state to even take care of its own citizens is compromised, and that it doesn't have the capacity to deal with refugees, or individuals who are not citizens. The weakened ability of the state is because of its inability to instill fiscal stability and undertake reforms that can put the country on a sustainable growth trajectory. This is policy failure at the highest levels, and not a function of a few million refugees. If anything, they become a part of the labour force and contribute towards the economic growth of the country.

It is up to the state to decide how it wants to channelize the available labour through policy actions. Policy decisions that are myopic, and enacted to serve one rent seeker or another do not serve any citizens either. The whole policy apparatus is effectively anti-people at this point, as the state has failed to even enable access to basic nutrition, clean drinking water, and sanitation for its people – we can even ignore education and health at this point when the crisis is more existential in nature. With more than twenty million children out of school, and many more malnourished, policy failure is leaving very little for future generations to cherish, or increase productivity and contribute towards sustainable economic growth.

By not recognizing people who have lived in this country for decades, we are going against the fundamental spirit and values that led to the creation of this country. We are all complicit in this act, and this slow systemic failure to give identity and recognition to people who live among us. We are blinded by the privilege of identity that our forefathers fought and died for many decades back.

The writer is an independent macroeconomist.