Afghan refugees swarm to safety in Pakistan

February 12, 2023

The international community has yet to actto manage the arrival of new Afghan refugees in Pakistan

Afghan refugees swarm to safety in Pakistan


he uncertainty in Afghanistan has skyrocketed following the threat alert issued by Saudi Arabia and other embassies in Kabul for their personnel. This serves as evidence that the Taliban’s efforts to establishpeace in the country following their takeover of Kabul have fallen short. The ongoing insecurity has caused anexodus of middle-class Afghan families. Pakistani authorities have reported that the number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has reached one million. However, the international community has yet to actto manage the arrival of these refugees.

“We don’t even know if we are considered refugees now or if we will be deported to Afghanistan once our visas expire,” says Zahir Shah, 42.

Shah, a native of the Batikot region in Nangarhar province, arrived in Peshawar last year along with his wife and three children.

“I was lucky.I got a visa. It is impossible now to get a visa for Pakistan. Now people desperate to leave are falling victims to fraud by Afghan agents in Kabul and Nangarhar. After paying thousands of rupees and applying online as advised, theyget no visa.” He says.

This year, the winter was devastating. In many villages, there was a shortage of fuel, leaving the residents without adequate warmth. Widespread unemployment has led to food scarcity in many areas. Since the withdrawal of the US and the West from Afghanistan, development projects, employment, education and healthcare have come to a standstill. The education sector is facing a particularly bleak period, with a ban on women’s education and the closure of foreign-funded educational institutions.

Twenty-five million Afghans live in poverty. More than half of the population is dependent on humanitarian aid. According to a UN report, six million people are on the verge of famine;one million children are suffering from severe malnutrition.

Of the more than 6 million Afghans who were forcibly displaced from their homes by the end of 2021, 3.5 million were within Afghanistan, while 2.6 million sought refuge in other countries, making it one of the largest protracted refugee situations in the world. Women and children make up 80 percent of those displaced within Afghanistan.

The central leadership of the Taliban is aware of these difficulties, but the hard-line factions within the movement are forcing the leadership to adhere to a strict interpretation of Sharia law. As a result, there is little hope for improvement in the near future. The lack of a clear policy from international organisations concerning the current situation in Afghanistan has caused many Afghan families to leave the country and seek entry visas to Pakistan and Iran. Even with valid passports and visas, hundreds of families in Pakistan face uncertainty. They cannot name a destination after the expiry of their visas in cities like Peshawar.

Pakistan has been a home for many Afghan refugees for four decades. Over three million Afghan refugees sought refuge in Pakistan during and after the Afghan War in the 1980s. Currently, there are 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, representing a mix of those who arrived during the Afghan War and later during the civil war. Many of these refugees have settled permanently in Pakistan. However, as there are no specific laws in place to grant citizenship, they are still forced to lead a life of migration in the country.

Pakistani authorities have reported that the number of Afghan refugees crossing into Pakistan has exceeded one million.

With the support of Deutsche WelleAkademie, a conference was held in Nepal bringing together journalists from South Asia, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, to raise awareness and improve the quality of reporting on refugees and migration issues in the region. Journalists from Afghanistan and Pakistan emphasised the need for coordinated efforts to address the new crisis involving Afghan refugees.

“One may find it hard to believe, but I have a list of 200 Afghan journalists in Pakistan seeking to relocate to a safer country. Many of them have visas that have expired. Most of these 200 journalists are travelling their families. They are currently facing immense uncertainty regarding their future,” Tahir Khan, a senior journalistand expert on Afghan affairs told the conference.

Pakistan’s owneconomic problems have left it ill-equipped to handle the crisis of Afghan refugees. While many of the recentrefugees are living with the Afghan refugee community in Pakistan, the challenges faced by unregistered Afghan refugees have escalated and may become a significant issue for future governments.

When the Afghan refugee camps in the vicinity of Peshawar were ended a few years ago, it was as if therefugees were being forced to migrate for a second time. Since they were being returned to their native country, the process was not as painful. Now, they are facing the possibility of having to migrate for the third time. For nearly twenty years, Afghan governments have blamed Pakistan for all their problems. As a result, the Pakistani youth are not as welcoming as their counterparts in the 1980s. This has made the problem of asylum and employment more challenging for the refugees.

“The main issue is Pakistan’s limited resources. I am aware that the Pakistani authorities are concerned about the situation of Afghan refugees, but the country does not have the resources to accommodate such a large influx of refugees. Meanwhile, Western countries are giving priority to the issue of Ukrainian refugees, leaving little hope for Afghans. Pakistan and Iran are the only remaining options, but even those are becoming increasingly harder,” said Tahir Khan.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has a predominantly Pashtun population. There are also some Pashtun communities in Balochistan. Afghan refugees have an easier time integrating into local populations in these two provinces. However, these refugees are rapidly running out of money. Most of them want to go to Europe or North Americathrough embassies located in Pakistan. Unfortunately, this hope is diminishing. Without the support of the international community, these refugees will be unable to remain in Pakistan.

“I know many people who have been compelled to beg due to a lack of employment opportunities. If thethousands of families are not provided some aid soon, they will either be forced to return to Afghanistan or resort to criminal activities. In the fearful, poverty-stricken and hopeless environment, how longcan these Afghans stay in Pakistan?” Shah added.

On Peshawar University Road, it feels like the 1980s as one can see Afghan women and children wandering around the markets. The influx of thenew refugees is driving up the prices and rents of housing in the area. Unfortunately,the international community seems to have no plan for these refugees so far. With each passing day, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Pakistan to shoulder the burden of their care.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer

Afghan refugees swarm to safety in Pakistan