The future of Afghan refugees in Pakistan


Pakistan’s decision to speed up the return of the three million Afghan refugees living across the border places strain on a bilateral relationship already suffering from a massive trust deficit.

Zahid Shahab Ahmed
23 October 2012

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 of the burden.

Recent developments

Afghan refugees in Pakistan make up the world’s 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 or refugee permits in Pakistan, many of them since the Afghan-Soviet War during the 1980s. 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 this long history of instability in Afghanistan, there has been a constant flow of refugees to and from Pakistan. More than eight million Afghans came to Pakistan between 1979 and 2002. It is believed that half of them returned after the collapse of the Taliban regime, but many more then came to Pakistan because of increasing insecurity in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has been keen to end the war, hence the increased number of troops which heightened the conflict in Afghanistan and consequent greater civilian and military loss. According to a report, 2011 was the deadliest year in the country since the invasion, with 3,021 civilian deaths compared to 2,790 in 2010.

It is hard to understand the logic of the coalition troops' 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 and a failed peace process. Under such circumstances, millions of Afghan refugees do not see their homeland as safe for their return.

Nonetheless, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have returned; some in response to hopes of good opportunities and security, some because the Pakistan government did not extend their refugee status. Many find it very difficult to resettle in Afghanistan after living for decades in Pakistan. As per the plan in Islamabad, almost all of the Afghan refugees will lose their refugee status by the end of 2012. Thus, they are vulnerable to deportation even while the future of Afghanistan is unclear.

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 the 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 returning 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 the right conditions for the return of refugees. The UNHCR chief met with the PM of Pakistan in February 2012, but has not managed to change Islamabad’s position on this.

It is easier for the international community to say that Pakistan is wrong to force millions of Afghan refugees to return to a country that is ill prepared to deal with a huge influx of people. Afghanistan is an aid-dependent economy, but so, largely, is Pakistan, 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.

Impact on Afghanistan-Pakistan relations

We need to look at this issue also in the broader historical perspective in relation to bilateral ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan to find out its impacts on peace in the region.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been unfriendly ever since the independence of Pakistan in 1947, when Afghanistan, due to a border dispute, became the only country to oppose the inclusion of Pakistan in the UN. However, on the surface, the tension between the two seems very recent, which happens when we look at it through the prism of ongoing war against terrorism in Afghanistan and the neighbouring tribal areas of Pakistan. But there are three main causes of the existing tension between the two: (1) Pakistan’s u-turn on policy towards Afghanistan in the form of open support for the US war against terror, (2) the controversy over the Durand line demarcation, (3) accusations of cross border terrorism.

During the Cold War era from 1979 to 1988, Pakistan was the one fighting the US proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Then another US-backed dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq (1924-1988) joined the US to push back the Soviets from Afghanistan. It was a time when Pakistan was still recovering from the loss of the 1971 war with India and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan posed another geostrategic threat to the country. Therefore, Pakistan was desirous of US support to contain the perceived threat in Afghanistan because it seemed likely that the Soviets were following their Great Game plans of using Afghanistan as a stepping-stone to create a warm water port in the Indian Ocean.

In the beginning of the Afghan-Soviet war in 1979, Pakistan hosted most of the 3.5 million Afghan refugees, which posed another challenge to the country’s development and security. Many of those refugees stayed even after the end of the Afghan-Soviet War in Pakistan because of either the civil war or the Taliban rule. With the onset of the 21st century another crisis emerged with the menace of global terrorism, and Pakistan was asked to fight against its allies from the decade long Afghan-Soviet war; the Taliban. Thus, the repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan could not be completed.

Pakistan’s decision to deport Afghan refugees has to been seen in relation to its national security interests in Afghanistan, especially once the international troops leave. At this moment, there are no clear decisions reached in relation to the contributive role of many regional actors, including India and Pakistan, towards reconstruction and development in Afghanistan. This has created insecurities in Islamabad. Since the fall of the Taliban regime – Islamabad’s close ally – in Afghanistan, India has appeared on the scene by initiating economic cooperation with Afghanistan. Pakistan has serious concerns over the role of the Indian consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat.

On one occasion in 2005, Pakistan discussed with Afghanistan the issue of the involvement of the Indian consulates in fuelling violence in Baluchistan province of Pakistan. Pakistan also has serious reservations over the role of Indian intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), in Afghanistan due to RAW’s perceived support for insurgency in the province of Baluchistan.

In July 2009, on the sidelines of a Non-Aligned Summit (NAM), Prime Minister of Pakistan Yousuf Raza Gilani presented an intelligence report to his Indian counterpart Dr. Manmohan Singh outlining the alleged role of India in destabilizing Pakistan by fuelling insurgency in Baluchistan. Pakistan is also uncomfortable with greater India-Afghanistan cooperation therefore it has refused India a transit facility to expand its bilateral trade with Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s recent decision to send Afghan refugees back home could be linked to its long-term mission of maintaining influence in Afghanistan. This could be a tactic to let the international community know that Pakistan’s role is crucial for peace and stability in Afghanistan and South Asia. Nevertheless, this decision has put another dent into bilateral ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In response to the decision in Pakistan, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement condemning the rhetoric in Islamabad: “It is disappointing to see a senior Pakistani official publicize the fundamentally humanitarian issue of refugees and wrongfully blame them for alleged involvement in criminal or terrorist acts to a reporter of the Los Angeles Times ... Such rhetoric is not helpful to all the sides working together to seek a permanent solution to the plight of refugees in Pakistan”. The ministry also urged the international community to support countries hosting refugees to ease the burden on hosting economies.

A people-centric approach

This decision and its implementation are going to have an impact on the peace process and stability in Afghanistan. In the short-run, the deportation of Afghan refugees will prove to be counterproductive for Islamabad’s wish to increase its influence and decrease that of New Delhi in Afghanistan. Ultimately, the tens of thousands of Afghan refugees are going to suffer.

The future of Afghanistan will depend on the greater realization of the significance of stability in Afghanistan in many neighbouring countries, most importantly Pakistan and India. There is no doubt that a stable Afghanistan is in everyone’s interest. Due to a regional increase in energy demand, friendly relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan would be a win-win scenario for the entire region. This environment would give reality to the idea of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India. Regional economic cooperation, especially via the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has its own significance towards regional security; however, bilateral ties have to improve. In this regard, the leadership in Kabul and Islamabad has to adopt a people-centric approach for dealing with the ongoing crisis, but there is a massive trust deficit between the two governments. The international community, especially the US and India, has to play a sensible role by accommodating the interests of key regional players with reference to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Thus, multilateralism is the way to go.

An earlier version of this article was published on Insight on Conflict.

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