In transit

September 5, 2021

Transit passengers include troops of the US and allied forces, government officials, multinational companies and Afghans associated with these companies and forces

In transit

After Mangalore in India, Islamabad is the safest city in South Asia. Noor Khan Airbase (the old airport) is still functional, in addition to the New Islamabad International Airport. These two factors have seemingly been behind the government’s decision to land all transit passengers from Afghanistan in Islamabad. These transit passengers include troops of the US and allied forces, government officials, foreign employees of multinational companies and Afghans associated with these companies and forces. Over 20,000 transit passengers have landed in Islamabad so far, in about 400 flights. Originally, there was a plan to distribute them among Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad but that has been abandoned. The arrival of these transit passengers in Islamabad has sparked several controversies in the country.

The first is about the facilitation of US troops by the government. Dr Shabbir Hussain, a mass communication teacher with publications in peace journalism, tells The News on Sunday (TNS) that everyone is discussing the political and strategic pros and cons of facilitating the evacuation of these troops from Afghanistan. “Interestingly, you will find little difference between the views of a street vendor and a university professor on this issue,” he says.

The arrival of Afghans in Islamabad is triggering fears that the city may have to host a lot more refugees. This issue is either underreported or misreported, giving rise to misinformation. Dr Muhammad Riaz, an associate professor of media studies at Bahria University, says that rather than going into a theoretic debate about whether public fears about Afghan refugees are rational or not, there is a need to look at some ground realities. “I live in Sector I-10. We have had the bulk of Afghan refugees in the city. Their settlements surround Pir Wadhai on both sides of the IJP Road. Today, the Sabzi Mandi police station in Islamabad and the Pir Wadhai police station in Rawalpindi register the highest number of crimes.”

House rents have soared in these areas and a drop in employment opportunities and wages is feared.

Afghans are more willing to do all kinds of jobs, from scavenging to running factories, creating intense competition. Zabihullah Maroof, an Afghan businessman, doesn’t agree that Pakistanis dislike or fear Afghans. “I am at a factory, owned by a Pakistani. I have business points set up in Lahore, Islamabad and Gujranwala. I have been in Pakistan since 1999 and in over two decades, I have found Pakistani people to be friendly and loving,” he says.

He says Afghans in Islamabad have been facing some problems. “I have a valid visa and Afghan identity card. But even so I have to face problems crossing the border. I cannot buy property in my name here. I bought a flat in the Tarnol area of Islamabad, but it is still in the name of a Pakistani friend. If he evicts me, I have no legal remedy. Whenever there is a crime, law enforcement starts raiding the houses of Afghans in the area. We cannot document our businesses. There has to be a Pakistani owner. The aid that the UN and other international agencies boast of distributing to Afghan refugees only reaches those living in refugee camps. It is too little to live on,” he says, adding that his family once lived in a refugee camp.

The arrival of Afghans in Islamabad is triggering fears that the city will welcome more refugees. This issue is either underreported or misreported, giving rise to misinformation.

Asked about the electronics and construction industry, a great deal of which is owned and operated by Afghans, he says, “the ancestors of some known business tycoons got their Pakistani identity cards in good old times. They have married into Pakistani families. Now their children own and operate big businesses here. But things have changed. No Afghan can get a Pakistani identity card any longer. The system does not allow it.”

Most Afghans do not live in camps and are not registered with UN Agencies. They are not rich businesspeople and are hard-pressed to make ends meet. Unlike Maroof, they are not able to run a small or medium-scale business. Philanthropists arrange meals for them, on the roadside, at Peshawar Morr, Pir Wadhai, Jinnah Super and some other places in Islamabad.

Every one of them has a story to tell. Some have had close family members killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Other families have been split between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Farman, an official at the Afghan embassy, dealing with education, says that there is no need to fear the Afghans coming to Pakistan now. The cases of those landing in Islamabad now will soon be processed by the embassies of the countries they are headed for before they leave. Even those crossing the border are saying that they will leave once the situation normalises in Afghanistan. At present, there are 3.5-3.7 million Afghans in Pakistan. Farman says that 9,000 of them are studying in universities in Pakistan. Most of these students are in Islamabad. Some Pakistanis too apply to Afghan universities. Rauf, the owner of Istanbul Restaurant in Super Market, says that some Pakistani entrepreneurs also own and operate businesses in Afghanistan. Pakistani workers work in factories there. Most of them are also coming back now. They will all return to Afghanistan once the situation improves.

Rana Wahab, the Islamabad City SP, says that no one should panic. “The allied troops staying in Islamabad have separate arrangements for lodging. The Afghans accommodated in hotels are also under watch. They will leave as per the given plan,” he says, although he did mention that “in 70 to 80 percent of crimes in Islamabad, people from KP and Afghanistan are involved.”

A graduate from the UET with a background in telecom, Rana Wahab, says, “We are vigilant about illegal Afghan refugees, especially in Tarnol and Pir Wadhai areas. Action is taken upon any complaint and no one is punished because of their ethnicity. Islamabad police have made it the safest city in Pakistan, despite their limited resources.”

Prof Dr Asim Sajjad of Quaid-i-Azam University has written books and research papers on Pakistani society and politics. He was on the ground when the Afghan Basti was bulldozed in Islamabad some years ago. He tells TNS that “the fear of Afghans is because of the narrative that they brought with them Kalashnikovs and heroin. People are thinking that there is going to be a repeat of that episode. There is a need to further investigate that narrative as it is not entirely true. It is dangerous to criminalise an entire community. Afghans are not the only refugees in Pakistan. Millions of Bihari and Rohingya refugees live in Karachi. Add that to the internally displaced people (IDPs).”

Prof Sajjad was part of the movement to stop the displacement of people from the biggest Afghan Basti (squatter town) in Sector I-11 of Islamabad. “The term ‘Afghan’ was used [in a derogatory manner] deliberately, at the time, to generate public support for making thousands of people homeless. Most of the residents of that squatter town were IDPs, mostly from the Mohmand Agency. You need to deal with the causes of extreme poverty, so that such squatter towns are not set up,” he says. He believes that there is no single solution to the problem. “The concerns of indigenous populations, especially in Sindh, southern Punjab and Balochistan, about the presence of outsiders amongst them have to be addressed.”

The writer studies and teaches media. He can be reached on

Twitter at @furraat

In transit