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The refugee question


November 12, 2016

Sharbat Gula is one of the several million Afghans Pakistan has hosted over a course of four decades in the aftermath of incessant violence in Afghanistan. Entering Pakistan as an orphan in the early 1980s, she became famous for her hauntingly questioning eyes when she appeared on the cover of a 1985 edition of the National Geographic magazine.

Recently Sharbat re-emerged as an Afghan woman with incomplete refugee documents and a forged Pakistani CNIC. This case, with her profile as arguably the most famous Afghan refugee, stirred a necessary debate over Pakistan’s treatment of Afghan refugees.

The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province hosting Sharbat until now, did offer her to stay on but it was too little, too late by then and the hawks on the other side of the border had already convinced the presidential palace to cash in on the opportunity. Sharbat refused to stay and her family was welcomed by President Ashraf Ghani and the Afghan first lady with personalised billboards in Kabul.

Sharbat Gula’s inglorious departure is yet another episode deserving introspection in the already deteriorating Pak-Afghan relationship. The growing narrative in Kabul that ‘India gave us our parliament, a symbol of democracy, and Pakistan gave us the Taliban’ may not be fair but even this unfair perception should worry the Pakistani managers of Afghan affairs enough to sincerely revisit the Afghan policy, of which dealing with refugees is a significant component.

There are several valid arguments that advocate the dignified repatriation of Afghan refugees. The existence of millions of undocumented Afghan refugees inside Pakistan can understandably be translated into a continued burden on Pakistan’s economy, the difficulty our forces face in fighting terrorism at home, the indiscriminate application of local and international legal treaties and Baloch concerns of Afghan refugees getting mainstreamed with access to Pakistani documents, changing the demography in the context of a contentious Balochistan.

Under pressure from powerful European leaders, President Ashraf Ghani also signed a deal that allowed forced repatriation of Afghan asylum seekers from the European countries. When richer and more stable countries are reluctant in contributing their bit in a conflict of global consequences, Pakistan may be justified in inviting the Afghan government to sort out a mutually agreed to solution for the dignified return of Afghan refugees.

Pakistanis are hospitable people. They really are. The guests we have hosted include a range of people, from orphans and widows, corn-poppers, cheaper-than-the-market labourers to even Afghan artists, presidents etc. Some of the big names are Hamid Karzai, former Afghan president, and Dr Seema Samar, philanthropist and human rights activist, as well as Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the head of the Afghan Taliban.

We may cite certain refugee treaties and noncompliance of bureaucratic formalities to defend Sharbat Gula’s expulsion, but curious citizens will wonder why we failed to nab those like Mullah Akhtar Mansour within our mainland territories before the Americans did. Their crimes, although much more, must have included forged Pakistani CNICs after all.

People-to-people relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been the strongest pillar of stability in our otherwise distrustful and volatile neighbourhood. However, as state narratives are growing hostile there has been an increase in abusive, inhospitable and derogatory attitudes in our towns and cities. The local Pakhtun street taunts of ‘Kala ba zay?’ meaning ‘When are you packing?’ are a source of ungrateful sentiments that many Afghans will take back with them.

The fact that a local factory even adopted this phrase as a brand for selling snacks to children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, both Pakistani and Afghan, should worry Pakistani sociologists and experts of behavioural change.

Sharbat Gula’s journey – from an orphan with hauntingly questioning eyes in the 1980s to a widow in 2016, her wounds still unhealed – is a journey millions of Afghans have gone through. For many reasons, Sharbat Gula personifies all the miseries suffered by Afghans fleeing violence at home and taking refuge elsewhere during the last four decades. An orphan, a widow, the mother of several children and diagnosed with Hepatitis C, this famous symbol of Afghan refugees hosted by Pakistan should have been dealt with a lot more dignity, humanity and diplomatic wisdom.

Given that no heads rolled over Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s fake Pakistani CNIC and passport, who expects a sincere probe over this inglorious chapter? Not me.

Twitter: @Changovski

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