The future of Afghan refugees in Pakistan
14 September 2012: As the international presence in Afghanistan winds down, Zahid Ahmed, Insight on Conflict's local correspondent for Pakistan, asks what does the future hold for the three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan?
As the US-led coalition forces have decided to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, there are many concerns over the future of Afghanis within the country and abroad. There are many questions about the capability of the Afghan National Army to maintain peace and security, and neighbouring countries are figuring out their role in the future of Afghanistan beyond 2014. However, despite this uncertainty, countries hosting a large number of Afghan refugees see this situation as an opportunity to relieve themselves from the burden of refugees.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan make up the worlds biggest refugee community - around 3 million - and Islamabad has decided to speed up the process of returning them to Afghanistan. These Afghan refugees have already been living on extended visas in Pakistan, many of them since the Afghan-Soviet War during the 1980's. The continuous instability faced by Afghanistan - civil war, Taliban rule, and the international intervention - saw thousands of refugees preferring to live in exile.
Due to a long history of instability in Afghanistan there has been a constant flow of refugees to and from Pakistan. More than eight million Afghan came to Pakistan between 1979 and 2002 and it is believe that half of them returned after the collapse of the Taliban regime, but many more came to Pakistan because of increasing insecurity in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has been keen to end the war; therefore, increased the number of troops that heightened the conflict in Afghanistan. Consequently, greater civilian and military loss. According to a report, 2011 was the deadliest year in the country with 3,021 civilian deaths compared to 2,790 in 2010.
It is hard to understand the logic of the coalition troop’s decision to leave Afghanistan in such a hasty manner. The war is far from being over. The country is home to widespread insecurity caused by the war and terrorist attacks, weak rule of law and corruption, underdevelopment, failed peace process, and under such circumstances, millions of Afghan refugees do not see their homeland safe for their return.
Nonetheless, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have returned in response to hopes of good opportunities and security. Some have returned because the Pakistan government did not extend their visas. Many find it very difficult to resettle in Afghanistan after living for decades in Pakistan.
Authorities in Pakistan have viewed the millions of Afghan refugees as a serious threat to law and order and social stability in the country. They have been looking at the possibilities of sending Afghan refugees home for many years.
In Kabul, the government has said it is willing to take their own people, but not under present circumstances. The widespread economic, social and political instability in the country makes it unfit to receive a huge influx of refugees. The numbers of refugees retuning to Afghanistan has actually declined from 110,000 in 2010 to 50,000 in 2011. The international community has intervened in an attempt to ensure Afghanistan has right conditions for the return of refugees. The UNHCR chief met with the PM of Pakistan in February 2012, but has not changed Islamabad’s position on this.
It is easier for the international community to say that Pakistan’s decision is wrong to force millions of Afghan refugees to return to the country, which is ill-prepared to deal with a huge influx of people. Afghanistan is an aid-dependent economy, and so is Pakistan largely, and the latter’s economy has been bearing the burden of Afghan refugees for decades. Therefore, there is need to understand the rationale behind Pakistan’s decision. Pakistan has faced economic and security challenges because of hosting Afghan refugees in such large numbers. Thus, at this point the international community needs to look at the concerns of both countries to resolve the issue of Afghan refugees in Pakistan because both countries need support and mechanisms to deal with the issue of refugees.