Forty years ago in 1979, the Soviet forces (Now Russia) invaded Afghanistan. As a consequence, a large number of Afghan refugees crossed the border into Pakistan seeking refuge from the ravages of war. Their influx started through Torkham border as millions of Afghan refugees entered our country. To this day, the security situation in Afghanistan remains unstable. Throughout these forty years the people of Pakistan have been generously hosting Afghan refugees; making this the largest protracted refugee crisis under the mandate of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In the early years, the Government of Pakistan received generous support from the international community, including direct food assistance from the World Food Program (WFP) for the Afghan refugees. However, in the year 1995 the direct food assistance was withdrawn by WFP. This prompted the refugees to gradually move out of the camps and into the urban centres of Pakistan to earn livelihood for themselves and their families. While from the perspective of the refugees this move was imperative, it did however, put a strain on the limited resources of the local government.
Among the donors, UNHCR, Unites States of America (USA), European Union (EU), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries made significant contributions early on. However, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there was a drastic change in the global community’s perception towards this region. Consequently, majority of the donor countries withdrew their support to the Pakistani government.
However, UNHCR continued its support to the cause over the years and has made significant contributions in various sectors such as education, health, water and sanitation, skills development and repatriation.
This has vastly improved the lives of the sizeable refugee population within Pakistan and the local communities that have been hosting them over the last four decades.
With the assistance of UNHCR, since 2002 nearly 4.45 million Afghan refugees have repatriated back to Afghanistan through the government operated Repatriation Centres specifically established to facilitate this task. In 2002, UNHCR introduced the IRIS system in these centres, which replaced the manual system being used earlier, thus improving the process significantly.
Due to recent global crises, particularly in Syria and Myanmar, the focus of the international community and UNHCR has shifted towards these regions. UNHCR has had to divert majority of its funding towards the assistance of Syrian and Rohingya refugees, leaving behind meagre amount of resources for the Afghan refugees. As a result, UNHCR’s assistance to Pakistan has also declined significantly over the last few years. Consequently, the Pakistan Government is single handedly carrying the burden of providing relief to not only the refugees but also the local Pakistani population hosting the refugees.
Over the last four decades the Government of Pakistan has looked after millions of Afghan refugees. Currently there are approximately 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees (POR cardholders) and an additional 0.8 million ACC cardholders living in Pakistan. There are also more than a million un-documented refugees living in the country.
The Government of Pakistan has shown great flexibility in handling the Afghan refugees’ issues and has allowed them a lot of freedom while living in Pakistan. Registered Afghan refugees have the liberty to move anywhere in the country, have access to health and education in public and private institutions and are easily able to access employment opportunities throughout Pakistan. Moreover, the present government has allowed refugees with POR cards to open bank accounts with any bank in the country. This move will encourage Afghan refugees to start legal businesses in the country and will also facilitate the Afghan students getting education in Pakistani institutions.
Through special programs, the refugees are being given opportunities to enhance their skills in various trades which will enable them to earn better livelihoods for themselves and their families. Moreover the services being provided to them have been upgraded over the last decade through the Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas Program (RAHA).
The generations of Afghan refugees that grew up in Pakistan greatly benefitted from the opportunities and resources given to them by the Government of Pakistan. The majority of Afghan leadership and diplomats today got their education from universities in KP province of Pakistan. Similarly, almost all the players playing cricket for Afghanistan today, learned how to play the game while growing up in Pakistan. Over the years they were also allowed to participate in Pakistan’s domestic cricket tournaments which further enhanced their skills and experience.
While there are many individual success stories, several problems have also come to the fore due to the refugees’ prolonged stay in Pakistan. The lands which were utilized in the 1980s to establish camps for Afghan refugees have significantly appreciated in value after nearly 40 years. Due to the increase in their value, local land owners are demanding that their lands be vacated.
The number of refugees, both documented and un-documented, residing in Pakistan has more or less remained stagnant over the last few years due to extremely low repatriation figures. Majority of Afghans seem reluctant to go back mainly due to the security situation in Afghanistan. Today there are still 54 Afghan Refugee Camps operational in Pakistan. Out of which 43 camps are in the province of KP. The population of Afghan refugees in these 43 camps is nearly 1 million. This is in addition to the millions living in major urban centres of the country.
The purpose of hosting the Afghan refugees was to provide them with asylum space until the situation in Afghanistan became conducive for their repatriation. Unfortunately, it has been four decades and yet the situation remains unstable in their home country, forcing them to remain in exile. While Pakistan has remained a generous host throughout this time, the continuous presence of Afghan refugees is becoming a burden on the meagre resources of the hosting communities.
The time has now come for the international community to understand and acknowledge the sacrifices made by the people and government of Pakistan over the last forty years. For now, a plausible solution to this issue does not seem visible on the horizon, therefore, the people of Pakistan deserve a helping hand while they continue to be generous hosts as the crisis enters into its 5th decade.
Writer is director general Afghan refugees, KPK.
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