The refugee question

August 1, 2021

The government has not taken a final decision yet on whether new refugees would be allowed in the country. Apart from the financial challenges, Pakistan is concerned about the effects of prolonged fighting in Afghanistan

The refugee question

The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has resulted in an increased internal displacement of civilians as people move to safety from areas of active fighting to the ones that are still safe for living. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 270,000 people have been displaced since March this year, taking the number of internally displaced Afghans to over 3.5 million.

Although the new displacement hasn’t spilled across the Durand Line into Pakistan yet, the UNHCR estimates that at least 300,000 people will flee to Pakistan once the fighting in Afghanistan escalates.

Currently Pakistan is hosting over 1.4 million Afghan refugees who are getting meager international support. Almost 70 percent of these refugees live in cities and towns across the country. The remaining 30 percent live in 54 refugee camps, now called refugee villages, including 43 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 10 in Balochistan and one in Mianwali in the Punjab.

Roughly 880,000 of the refugees currently live in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, 330,000 in Balochistan, 165,000 in the Punjab and an estimated 65,000 in Sindh - mainly Karachi.

Another 880,000 Afghans living in Pakistan are the Afghan citizen (AC) card holders documented in 2017. These are not categorised as refugees and do not get any support from an international donor.

A third category of Afghans in Pakistan are neither termed as refugees nor AC card holders. The Ministry of States and Frontiers Regions (SAFRON) figures put the number of these undocumented Afghans in Pakistan between 300,000 and 400,000.

Qaiser Khan Afridi, the UNHCR spokesperson in Pakistan says that Pakistan lacks the capacity to support the new wave of refugee inflow on its own. He says international support will be imperative.

“It is most important that peace and stability should prevail in Afghanistan. In case of a refugee crisis, the UNHCR is ready to support Pakistan. The UNHCR also stresses on the international community to increase its refugee support in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. It is under-funded currently. We have launched a fresh appeal for more support,” Afridi says.

The government has not taken a final decision yet on whether new refugees will be allowed in the country. Apart from the financial challenges, Pakistan is concerned about the effects of prolonged fighting in Afghanistan, countering terrorism and stopping anti-Pakistan elements from entering Pakistan in the guise of refugees. It is also worried about the challenge of tackling the spread of Covid-19 among the refugees.

Pakistan estimates that over half a million new refugees will cross over into Pakistan if the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates further. Sensing the possibility of unavoidable refugee and other unforeseen challenges, Pakistan has already started increasing the concentration of the Frontier Corps (FC) KP guards at Ghulam Khan, Angoor Adda, Gavi, Lachi, Torkahm and Arandu, the six official border crossings between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has a 1,229 kilometres border with Afghanistan. 823 kilometres of this border is fence-able while most of the remaining 406 kilometres is covered by unscalable and vertical slopes that are almost impossible for humans to climb. According to the latest updates, the construction of 803 kilometers of Pakistan-Afghan International Border Fence has been completed. Some of the remaining sectors are covered by retainable walls and construction of fence continues without any interruption on the remaining few kilometres.

A bigger challenge for Pakistani security forces will be monitoring the numerous non-official border crossings. It is hard to rule out the possibility of “unwanted elements” trying to cross these sections in order to avoid detection. So far the issue of illegal border crossing has been tackled mostly through fencing. However, some hard-to-monitor areas still exist. That is where the Ministry of Interior finds it necessary to strengthen the border security arrangements.

Another challenge for Pakistan will be providing shelter to the new refugees. Pakistan will prefer that the international aid and humanitarian agencies take care of the internally displaced persons inside Afghanistan. However, if the crisis goes beyond control, the government will be forced to commit resources to support more refugees. It will then seek solid assurances and commitments from the international community.

Abbas Khan, the commissioner for Afghan Refugees in KP, says a joint working group formed for the purpose give its recommendations to the Prime Minister’s Office soon.

“The federal government will decide if, when and where the refugees will be housed. Pakistan has acted with utmost responsibility in this regard and will try to accommodate the refugees only after getting sincere commitments from international donors,” Abbas Khan says.

Three areas, 5 to 10 kilometers inside the border at Ghulam Khan in North Waziristan, Shalman near Torkham and Arandu in Chitral, have been identified for possible refugee camps.

“These will be secure camps with proper entry and exit mechanisms. All facilities, including health, food and education will be provided inside the camps,” the commissioner says.

Niaz Ali, an elder in Shalman area of Khyber tribal district, recalls the arrival of the first wave of Afghan refugees.

“The Afghans have spent over 40 years in Pakistan. Two generations have been born and raised here. Still many of them blame Pakistan for all their sufferings. No one in our area had known about Kalashnikov rifles, contract killing, kidnapping for ransom or kidnapping of young girls before that period,” Niaz claims.

“Many of them were so ill-mannered that they would just turn their backs to road and start peeing in public. This was never heard of in our society but now it is a common occurrence,” he adds.

“The best thing about them was hard work. They would do any sort of hard labour to earn daily livelihood. They brought with them many skills, including carpet weaving which thousands of Pakistanis learnt from them,” Niaz Ali adds.

Such statements often reflect the biases that local communities hold against refugees. With inadequate governance, changing demographics can pose a challenge to community relations and cohesion.

When they first arrived in 1979, the Afghan refugees were kept in around 400 camps for a long period. The World Food Programme (WFP) discontinued assistance for them in 1995. Subsequently, Pakistan allowed the refugees to move outside the camps for the purpose of earning a livelihood. Many critics say that the decision cost Pakistan dearly on many fronts, especially in terms of crime control. Pakistan cannot afford to let that happen again. It will try keeping all future refugees consigned to the camps for as long as needed.

The writer is a Peshawar based freelance journalist and has worked for Voice of America and The ICRC. Connect with him on Facebook at

The refugee question