There are hundreds of thousands of Afghans who consider Pakistan as their country. What does repatriation mean to them?
Amanullah, a 32-year-old Afghan, has been leading prayers in a mosque in a suburban village of Peshawar for the last many years. He had replaced his elder brother when he decided to return to his country. Before the two, their uncle was leading prayers in the same mosque since 1980s. The family has much influence in the village due to the status of prayer leaders in the society.
"My brother decided to return home when a campaign was launched against the Afghan prayer leaders in Peshawar and many other areas a few years back. I am facing the same situation today as police have ordered to remove all the Afghan prayer leaders," says Amanullah, who also runs a shop in the same village because whatever he earns from the mosque is not enough to feed his eight-member family. He doesn’t have any document -- either Proof of registration (PoR) card issued by the UNHCR to refugees or any travel document or fake Pakistani NIC to legalise his stay.
Amanullah, his siblings and children are among the tens of thousands of Afghans who were born in Peshawar. They have been to their ancestral home in Jalalabad hardly a few times. They don’t want to go back.
"My kids are studying in a local school. I have all my friends here in Peshawar. I don’t want to go back home," says an emotional Amanullah with brimming eyes, believing the Afghans have not much time to stay in Peshawar. "I was born here and spent over three decades of my life in Peshawar. The Afghans who want to live here must be given an option to get Pakistani nationality or dual nationalities."
There are hundreds of thousands of Afghans who consider Pakistan as their country. Tens of thousands of Afghans are Pakistani national identity card (NIC) holders, have been in government service, have contested polls, own properties and businesses and have developed family ties with the locals through weddings of their children.
Afghans (either refugees or unregistered) have been a part of everyday life in Pakistan, especially Peshawar where hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been leading prayers, driving buses and coaches, working as labourers, selling fruits and vegetables on pushcarts, running Pulao and Tikka restaurants. Afghan Colony, Shamshatoo, Jalozai, Kacha Garhai, Arbab Road and other towns give the look of mini Afghanistan for being dominated by Afghans.
They are living in spacious houses of Hayatabad and University Town to the makeshift tent villages and mud houses in parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Peshawar has great contribution in building a popular national cricket team for Afghanistan as a number of their players learnt to play the game in this provincial capital. Some of the Afghans in Pakistan still argue that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata are very much part of Afghanistan and they have every right to live here without any POR or other document. Others admit Pakistan is a brother country and Afghans should not only abide by its laws but also thank them for sharing their houses, hospitals, schools, businesses, mosques and hujras with them for decades.
"Afghans are very much a part of the life in Peshawar. I have been playing with them, buying fruits and vegetables from vendors on Kohat Road, they built our houses as labourers and hosted us with their popular Kabuli Pulao," says Nazir Mohammad, a political worker of Garhi Qamardin village.
He believes that even if there is any return of Afghans planned, they must be seen off with respect and honour as brothers and sisters.
"Neither police nor anyone else should insult our guests. Those who have no documents must register themselves and families. Also, there are complaints of Pakistanis misbehaving in Afghanistan that needs to be checked and stopped by the Afghan government," adds Nazir Mohammad.
According to the statistics of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, mostly in Peshawar. Besides, there are around one million Afghans who have not been registered and live scattered.
"It is not so easy for thousands of Afghans to wind up their millions of rupees businesses and properties and pack up for Afghanistan immediately. Those who have invested millions in the city deserve to be given an opportunity to live in Pakistan legally and with respect. Immediate withdrawal of billions of rupees investment will harm the economy of Pakistan, especially Peshawar," says Shahid Khan, an Afghan who has been doing business in the city for years, owns property and has his relatives in government and private jobs.
"For any Afghan, the biggest terror is Pakistani police as they arrest them for no reason, only to mint money. Even those who have documents are terrorised by the cops," he says.
Some of the Afghans are finding it impossible to break the ties they have developed in Pakistan. "My wife is a Pakistani from Mohmand Agency. My children are very close to their maternal uncles. They can never think of spending life in our underdeveloped village near Kabul," says Razi Khan, a vendor who sells bananas on a pushcart.
His brothers and parents, however, have preferred to go back to their home country and have been living there for over five years now. "I am divided. My parents are in Afghanistan while my wife wants to live in Pakistan."
There have been complaints that a number of Afghans, especially the illegal residents, are involved in terrorism, extortion, kidnapping and other crimes. They easily escape back to their country after committing any crime or carrying out any attack in Pakistan, thanks to the unregulated border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to a senior police officer, around 20,000 people cross the border every day from both sides only in Torkham but hardly 500 of them have proper travel documents. Like the rest of Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa authorities have already launched a crackdown on the illegally residing Afghans.
Under the National Action Plan, launched soon after the attack on Army Public School in Peshawar, the Peshawar Police have held over 3233 Afghans who failed to produce any document to legalise their stay. "From January 1 to March 24, we had lodged 1957 cases against 3233 accused under the 14 Foreign Act," Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Operations Peshawar, Dr Mian Saeed Ahmad, tells The News on Sunday.
Out of these cases 931 were registered in the limits of the city division, 890 in Cantt division and 136 in the rural division of the provincial capital. "Besides 104 Afghan prayer leaders were removed on the directives of the provincial government authorities," says Dr Saeed.
The arrests of Afghans in Pakistan recently triggered harsh statements from some officials in Kabul. The matter was also taken up with the Government of Pakistan through all the concerned channels after which police was directed not to bother Afghans, especially those having POR cards or other documents.
"They have the legal right to stay in Pakistan till December 31, 2015. We are encouraged by the recent improvements in bilateral relations with new government in Afghanistan clearly making the return and reintegration of Afghan refugees a national priority. There is a unique window of opportunity for solutions," says Duniya Aslam Khan, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Pakistan.
She, however, added that unregistered or undocumented Afghans do not enjoy any protected status in Pakistan and fall under the scope of the provisions of the 1946 Foreigners Act. UNHCR’s mandate also does not cover this population. Khan, believes individuals who claim to be at risk of human rights violations or other serious harm in case of return to Afghanistan should be provided access to the refugee status determination procedure carried out by the UNHCR under its mandate.
"The answer to addressing the undocumented Afghan population is to set up a border/migration management between the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Host states have the sovereign right to take action against illegal migrants, but it would be advisable to put in place procedures for orderly departure. We are happy to know that recently the two governments have agreed to devise a plan to address the issue of undocumented Afghans in Pakistan," adds the UNHCR spokesperson.
On the issue of the arrest of registered Afghan refugees, the situation is gradually stabilising. "Soon after the tragic attack on the Army Public School, the Minister of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) Let Gen. Abdul Qadir Baloch, in a press conference, confirmed that there was no proof of involvement of Afghan refugees in any terrorist activity."
To prevent arbitrary detention, UNHCR, NGO partners and the Government of Pakistan have been undertaking joint awareness-raising sessions with law enforcement agencies. "These interventions have helped in calming down the situation and, concomitantly, a reduction in the number of returns," maintains Khan.