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June 20, 2020

Though federal govt has failed to fulfil citizenship promise, Afghan refugees are better in its tenure than before


June 20, 2020

Sabir Shah, an Afghan refugee, has been selling Afghan naan bread for the past several years in Karachi’s Al-Asif Square, a neighbourhood where a resident of Karachi might feel alien in their own city but for those who are familiar with Afghanistan, it is an area like the Makroyan apartments in Kabul.

Shah moved to Pakistan in October 1979 from Afghanistan’s Kabul province, escaping the Soviet army invasion in his country to support then communist government in Afghanistan. “I was 15 years old then when my parents moved to Karachi,” he told The News. Although the conflict intensified in December that year, people had started leaving the country in October to save their lives, he said.

Since then, Shah’s family has been living in Karachi. “We spent an entire life here,” he said. “We are grateful to Pakistan for hosting us for four decades with dignity,” he said.

On the completion of four decades of the Afghan refugees’ stay in Pakistan, the refugees and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have praised Pakistan for hosting the refugees with dignity and respect and providing them facilities.

Between the Soviet invasion of the 1980s and the rule of the Taliban in the late 1990s, tens of thousands of Afghans fled their homeland and moved to Pakistan to save their lives.

Pakistan has provided shelter to one of the world’s largest protracted refugee populations —more than five million Afghan refugees have been living in Pakistan since 1979.

Haji Abdullah Bukhari, a representative of Afghan refugees in Sindh, said that a large number of refugee children and youth had been born in the second or third generation of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

“We had marriages here and our kids were born in Pakistan. We have jobs and work here,” he added. Most of those who were born in Karachi have never visited Afghanistan and they lack linkages with their ancestral country, Bukhari said. “The children born here cannot live in Afghanistan. They are now Karachiites."

Qaiser Khan Afridi, a UNHCR spokesperson in Islamabad, said Pakistan had generously hosted millions of Afghan refugees for decades and the refugee body fully acknowledged the positive role of Pakistan and its people.

Pakistan continues to host 1.4 million Afghan refugees and some 4.4 million Afghan refugees have gone back to Afghanistan since 2002 under the UNHCR-supported voluntary repatriation programme, Afridi said.

Sakhi Gul was born in Camp Jadeed, an Afghan refugee camp in the city’s suburbs. His parents had migrated to Pakistan from Kunduz in 1979. Now a 36-year old carpet weaver, he lives with his wife and three children. He laments that the life of his family without a passport has crippled him.

For Afghans like Gul, there is an added baggage of malignant stereotyping rampant in the mainstream media of Pakistan. Once hailed as holy fighters who drove the Soviets away, the Afghans living in present-day Pakistan are often portrayed as terrorists, drug peddlers, and violent criminals, which often results in rampant discrimination and harassment.

Government’s efforts

After becoming the prime minister, Imran Khan had in September 2018 announced in Karachi that he intended to grant citizenship to 1.5 million Afghan refugees who had been living on the margins of Pakistan’s society for decades.

However, the announcement was widely criticised by the country’s ethno-political parties from Sindh and Balochistan. The PM reiterated his resolve as he later spoke at the National Assembly. Under the Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951, those born to refugees in Pakistan were entitled to citizenship of the country, he said. "We cannot force their repatriation according to UN [United Nations] conventions,” he added.

Although, due to the backlash from the ethno-political parties, citizenships to the Afghan refugees were not granted, the federal government has taken a number of initiatives to help resolve the problems faced by the Afghan refugees.

The PM in February last year ordered the banks in Pakistan to allow all the registered Afghan refugees to open accounts. Refugee leaders and analysts believe that the decision has helped make Afghan refugees part of the formal economy as they have remained associated with different businesses and professions in the country for decades.

Khan Muhamamd, a 44-year trader, had been running his shop of carpets in Karachi’s Metroville locality for the past 15 years. However, being of the Afghan descent, he could not open a bank account due to which he faced severe problems in his trade.

He said the move raised hopes that soon the refugees would be able to purchase properties and vehicles in their own names and get driving licences.

An official in the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions said that the government is also considering allowing the Afghan refugees to purchase property and vehicles and apply for driving licences.

"The government fully understands the issues faced by the refugees and has been trying its best to resolve them,” the official said.