Editorial: Afghan refugee mess
The people General Zia-ul-Haq welcomed from Afghanistan as “our own people” in 1978 are no longer wanted in 2007. Pakistan has reluctantly renewed its pledge with Afghanistan and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) on Thursday that it would repatriate “voluntary” registered Afghan refugees in the next three years. It actually wants all of them back in Afghanistan, voluntary or not, but can’t do it in the face of global humanitarian concerns.
Since 2002, more than 3 million Afghans have returned under the voluntary repatriation programme of the UNHCR. If you have so far believed the figure of 3 million plus, prepare to make some revisions. The “registered” ones who remain in Pakistan are 2.5 million, which makes the total figure go up to nearly 6 million. Don’t even talk about the “unregistered” ones. And even less about Pakistan’s ability to hunt down the stragglers who have been born and grown up here and are now in their mid- and late-20s and able to bear arms.
General Zia spoke tongue-in-cheek when he said Pakistan should absorb the fleeing Afghans in Pakistan. Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, the man who headed the Afghan desk of Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI during the 1980s, in his book The Bear Trap, spoke the truth: “The refugee camps were places to which the Mujahideen (guerrillas) could return for rest and to see their families”. He also described the refugee camps as “a huge reservoir of potential recruits for jihad”. The policy has boomeranged and the refugees today are, in the eyes of its hosts, a “security risk” that Islamabad wants to remove in short order.
But the argument advanced by Pakistan for the repatriation of Afghan refugees is hardly credible. It says since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan has ended, the refugees should return home. The truth is that after the “defeat” of the Soviet Union the Afghan mujahideen fought among themselves for several years and caused more refugees to flee instead of getting back the ones displaced by the Soviets. Mention too should be made of the Pakistan-supported Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 when more refugees had to flee all kinds of Islamic punishments in Afghanistan. One can, however, accept Islamabad’s plaint that the latest batch came after 2000 because of the drought in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, fleeing Afghan families were mostly absorbed in the NWFP and Balochistan. When the new population arrived in Peshawar the local population complained of being pushed out of their jobs. In the countryside, the cattle brought by the refugees denuded the grazing areas used by the local pastoral society. Islamabad, flush with money that it got for caring for the refugees, turned a deaf ear to these reports. Some of the international food assistance was consumed by the bureaucracy — for instance, cheese, which the Afghans didn’t want to eat — and the meat from slaughtered animals on Eid that came from Saudi Arabia, after it was “waylaid” on the way from Karachi to Peshawar.
By 1985, there were more than 300 refugee villages along the Durand Line. With the exception of a single camp in Mianwali district of Punjab, all were either in the NWFP or Balochistan. But the Afghans who were Pushtun by ethnicity spread out to all corners of the country, including Karachi, and the state soon lost control over their movement, especially as a Pakistan ID card was the easiest thing to obtain. A report says: “Refugees have acquired property, businesses and jobs, putting an economic squeeze on the permanent residents. The crime rate and violence have soared, including social evils like prostitution and drug addiction. In short, the Afghan war has corrupted Pakistani elites, administration and society and its social effect on Pakistan has given birth to many complex problems which are less obvious but quite disturbing”.
General Zia, himself a refugee from India, could hardly imagine the denouement of the grand shift of populations at Partition which permanently destroyed the peace of Sindh. (Most ethnic conflicts in the world start with migrations.) He presided over the beginning of another almost equally big migration from Afghanistan. No country in history has this kind of record: receiving two populations within fifty years after its creation. Yet most Pakistanis innocently wonder why the state seems so unprepared for survival!
Those who formulate Pakistan’s security strategies are actually clueless about Pakistan. Having coped badly with two massive migrations, they went into Afghanistan seeking “strategic depth” and are now stuck with a state that is reeling under occupation where terrorists going in from Pakistan’s “ungoverned spaces” prevent the infrastructural development that could enable the refugees to return voluntarily. The good money for looking after the refugees Pakistan used to get in the 1980s stopped after the Soviets left Afghanistan. Now there is a Pushtun Talibanisation in Pakistan and Islamabad is tragically looking at the refugees with suspicion. *