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May 23, 2020

Refugee stories


May 23, 2020

According to the UNHCR, there are some 70.8 million forcibly displaced people across the world today including 41.3 million internally displaced persons, 25.9 million refugees and some 3.5 million asylum seekers.

Fifty-seven percent of these refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan and 80 percent of the refugee influx is hosted by the neighbouring countries. The magnitude of international conflicts and civil strife within states has increased over the years as wars and insurgencies continue to shape international politics. Forced displacement and statelessness is a continuing threat to millions of lives around the world and it is not going away anytime soon. International organizations like the UNHCR do their best to address the humanitarian crisis caused by wars and conflicts but we need to buttress their efforts through collective actions.

In our conventional national debates on forced displacement, we usually end up doing some calculations of net losses in economic and political terms. Forced displacement of people will of course have spillover economic and political consequences to the neighbouring countries with visible implications on livelihoods, peace and social cohesion. That is why it calls for collective planning and concerted action to minimize political and economic costs and also to address the humanitarian crisis with empathy rather than with econometrics. In the absence of planning, Pakistan has suffered from the political and economic burden of hosting millions of refugees in the last three decades. Having said this, it is important to contest the debate of the refugee crisis in the Pakistani media which tends to blame Afghan refugees for all social, economic and security related ills in the country.

It is important to understand that Pakistan opted to go with world powers in reshaping Afghanistan from the days of the cold war which, inter alia, entailed getting international assistance to host refugees. It was not out of any altruism or a sense of helping Afghan brethren; it was all about money and politics. Those who wanted to carve out a new Afghanistan in the aftermath of the cold war left this impoverished country to bleed internally once their political objectives were met.

The protracted internal strife in Afghanistan is one of the longest unsettled conflicts in the world without any chances of peace and harmony to prevail in the foreseeable future. Pakistan,amongst the top refugee hosting countries in the world along with Turkey, Germany, Uganda and Sudan, will need assistance to deal with this humanitarian crisis. That is exactly why the UNHCR needs to expand its operations in Pakistan to build on its ongoing good work. In addition to IDPs, refugees and asylum seekers there are millions of stateless people with no political entitlement of citizenship and right of representation as well as without access to basic services like education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.

Some experts suggest that one must classify stateless people into two categories. One is those in a state of benign statelessness which involves no right of representation and citizenship. Under this category, one can include the people of Gilgit-Baltistan as an example of benign statelessness in the context of Pakistan as they do not have the right of representation in national politics and hence no citizenship rights. The other category is absolute statelessness which includes all those who are not entitled to political, social and economic rights.

The UNHCR must come up with two separate strategies to address the plight of those under these two categories of statelessness. There are many untold stories of agony, violence, harassment and torture faced by forcibly displaced people. Forced displacement is not a choice; it is coercion, up-rootedness, horror, death and loss of human dignity.

Long ago in November 1995, I joined a campaign run by some community development institutions to help 30,000 Afghan refugees who were forced out of their country. Taliban rule was not fully established in Afghanistan then but there was internal strife for control of mainland Afghanistan. As a young volunteer I had the opportunity to visit refugee camps in the then North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan and to collect some horrible stories of miseries and agonies inflicted upon poor Afghans by the warring factions and proxies of the world powers. The stories I collected were firsthand accounts of refugees who lost everything including the right to live in their own homeland – but most of them had not lost the hope for a better future.

A highly educated Afghan man in his early forties narrated some heart-wrenching stories of how his family and others managed to escape extermination at the hands of the Taliban in the southern province of Kandahar in June 1995. His whole family was kept in a dilapidated house filled with scars of blood, smell of explosives and screams of injured and dying people all around. All women were asked to leave after two days and the men who resisted were killed or taken to custody and most of them were then disappeared. This educated man escaped by acting dead by lying among the dead bodies in the compound of that decrepit house. In the darkness of night when the Taliban left the compound he could manage to escape the death trap.

In the refugee camp this gentleman organized people into small groups to teach them English, history and basic numeracy. He was optimistic that ‘one day these refugees will enter Afghanistan as educated people to serve their country and help restore peace rather than killing their compatriots under a tribal instinct of retribution’. Despite living in subhuman conditions in refugee camps, this educated man and many others like him strived to contribute for a better future for their compatriots and were optimistic that peace would return to their country. We must bring forth such emotive stories and we must acknowledge that being a refugee does not undermine human potential to contribute to make the world better.

In the autumn of 1995, the Taliban took over the Herat province near the border of Iran and those who escaped found no refuge until they crossed borders into Iran and then to Pakistan through the Taftan border. There were a dozen families from Herat whose stories of horror still haunt me and some of them continue to live under subhuman conditions in a refugee camp near Pishin in Balochistan. Development workers must visit those refugees and their stories must be told to the world.

In 2000, as university students we created a platform of migration and refugee studies with the primary objective to organize awareness-raising programmes about the refugee crisis and issues of forced displacement. Under this initiative we organized conferences and invited the UNHCR and other agencies to share their wisdom on forced displacement. It worked well for university students and we were able to expand the group.

The stories we collected as students still influence my work as a development professional. I hope that the UNHCR and government of Pakistan will work closely to address the unresolved issues of Afghan refugees and stateless people living in Pakistan.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76