Suffering happens, but Pakistan's Afghan refugees are more than just victims

The word 'refugee' conjures up images of rows of tents, barefoot children and saddened faces. The reality is more complex. My research shows that Afghan refugees have developed lives alongside Pakistani nationals in Karachi's poor katchi abadi areas: marrying, working, loving and learning together. 

Sanaa Alimia
22 January 2014

Afghan children - wearing shoes - play in a Pakistani refugee camp. Credit: Demotix. 

Karachi is one of the world’s largest megacities. More than half of the population live in informal housing areas called katchi abadis: katchi means raw or unfinished, a reference to the raw cement, mud, or timber used to make the houses.

In one such katchi abadi on the outskirts of this Pakistani city, Afghan and Pakistani friends, many of whom work together in bazaars, internet cafes, and transport networks, gather every Sunday morning to play football.

Enayat, a 35-year-old Pakistani Pashtun from Swat, and Qasim, a 28-year-old Pashtun and Afghan refugee are part of this group of football-playing friends. They have been living as neighbours for over ten years and used to own a women’s fabric store together in Karachi’s commercial area. “We cook together, go to work together, loan money to each other - of course we would, we’re friends,” Qasim told me. In recent years the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan state has been volatile and prone to breakdowns. But this political tension, I discovered, does not translate to social relationships on the ground in Pakistan.

I have been interviewing families as a part of my research on Afghan refugees in urban Pakistan, and was struck by the warmth between these two friends. They told me how the income from their original store was not enough to pay for both their children’s school fees and to live comfortably. “Enayat loaned me the money I needed to get the rent for the shop floor and my stock. We trust each other, so he said I could have the money,” Qasim said.

On the outskirts of Peshawar, in a predominantly Afghan refugee katchi abadi area with low daily income averages and poor water supplies, residents described how they worked together to rebuild damaged houses and distribute water amongst themselves. In the devastating 2010 floods that hit Pakistan many mud walled homes in the area simply fell apart.

Afghan refugee and widowed father of four, Mustafa, told me how he and his sons worked to overcome this: “The imam at the mosque, a Pakistani, has got a water-line in the mosque and says we can take water from there”. Slowly, the community rebuilt, sharing labour and cement supplies to save people’s homes. Official water suppliers have not yet provided the whole area with water lines. Pausing to show me the mosque, Mustafa continued, “It’s a little far, but at least the imam lets us have the water. And often some of the younger boys fill up bottles and distribute it to the poorest houses. We’ve always tried to work together here.” 

In Pakistani media reports and government corridors Afghan refugees are described as a ‘burden’, or as a 'threat’ within the context of a deteriorating Afghan-Pakistan state relationship. In Islamabad, Pakistan, in June 2013, after giving a public lecture to government officials, academics, and ex-military personnel on the position of Afghan refugees in Pakistan I received scowls from the audience and was told, “They have taken all of our country’s resources”.

How approximately 3-4 million Afghans managed to do this to a population of over 180 million remained mysterious. 

The actions of Mustafa, Qasim, and other Afghan refugees in katchi abadi spaces are forms of ‘self-humanisation’. Though state institutions or international humanitarian organisations claim responsibility towards providing basic conditions that can enable a good human life, such as access to water, shelter, and food, they often fail to do so. Self-humanisation describes peoples' attempts to gain the basic conditions necessary to survive and live a ‘decent’ human life. 

Self-humanisation is also about enabling a space for human ‘flourishing’, about pushing for a better life. Being human is not just about a basic right to life and survival. It also means being able to strive for an enriched form of life, to have social and emotional relationships, and be recognized as human by others. 

“I was advised to wear dirty clothes when going to the UN for the [refugee determination status] interview and to look ‘sad’ and ‘profound’.”                                                                                   - Shahram Kosravi, 'Illegal' Traveller: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders, 2010.

Yet when you say the word ‘refugee’ it often conjures up images of helpless victims, usually female or children. Images of row upon row of tents, barefoot children, and saddened faces dominates the images used by non-governmental organisations, the international refugee relief system, and national and international media campaigns.

Refugees are pictured as a homogenous, unfortunate, passive mass of suffering. In the discourse of human rights intervention - the type that attempts to justify the supply of aid relief - only one particular type of humanity is accepted. This is the ‘exemplary victim’, a caricature of what a victim should be. The reality is much more complex.

In my work with Afghan refugees in Peshawar and Karachi I was repeatedly struck by how refugees who failed to ‘perform’ to the regime's expectations of suffering, despite meeting legal requirements, were simply left hanging and rejected. With her asylum case in review, Amineh Jan, a 45-year-old teacher, widow, and mother-of-two who was forced to flee to Pakistan from Afghanistan in the 1990s told me, “I do not know what to do or how to get them to accept me as genuine” (my italics).

The issue is not that suffering does not occur. It does. Nor is it that barefoot children do not exist. Rather, the issue is that the frames of suffering applied to refugees are totalising and universalising. Suffering becomes the only thing a refugee can feel and be - anything more is too complex, too messy. And suffering must take one particular form, i.e., the sad barefooted child. Zoofshan, a 30-year-old who was living with her younger brother and five children in a katchi abadi was on a waiting list for her children’s entry into a local NGO school. She had been on the list for three months, being assessed to see if she was a ‘deserving’ case. She asked: “How much worse-off am I meant to be to satisfy them?”

But the Afghan ‘story’ in Pakistan, as I have investigated it, challenges these caricatures of refugees in a number of ways.

Afghan refugees have been present in Pakistan since the 1970s, through the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and continued conflicts in Afghanistan thereafter. This means that unlike current Syrian refugees, for example, they are no longer refugees in an ‘emergency phase’ of migration. Different phases of ‘refugeedom,’ from ‘emergency displacement’ to ‘protracted displacement,’ mean that being a ‘refugee’ is never one-dimensional; it takes on different colours at different times.

For this reason many Afghans have stayed in Pakistan and developed their lives within the country. Whilst some Afghans have returned to Afghanistan, many more have questioned the logic of national distinction by staying in Pakistan - marrying, working, loving, and learning within it in a quest to ‘live’ and improve, and thereby self-humanise their lives, and reject the over-simplified label ‘burden’.

Indeed, the majority of Afghans do not live in refugee camps but have become a shared part of the rural and urban fabric in the country. In some cases some Afghans have also ‘become Pakistani', informally acquiring Pakistani citizenship. Afghans live in shared neighbourhoods home to Afghans, Pakistanis, and others.

Rather than being hostile to each other in virtue of being different nationalities, Afghans and Pakistanis frequently face the same problems: a lack of access to water, housing, and shelter, or the potentials to ‘flourish’. They often work together to overcome these issues. For many Pakistanis the state is simply unable, and in some cases unwilling, to provide for all of its citizens, particularly the urban poor. Yet despite this, the key point to take-away is that neither Afghans (nor Pakistanis) remain as helpless sub-human exemplary victims. Instead, they take action in an effort to improve their lives. Rather than ‘draining’ the state refugees are making do with very little.

Qasim and Enayat’s friendship and Qasim’s efforts to make a go of his business reveal people who are more than victims. For Qasim, human life is also about being able to strive for personal enrichment. As a refugee Qasim is reliant on his trust and friendship with Pakistani national Enayat to open his shop, but through his business he contributes to the local economy. The imam who helps Mustafa and his fellow residents on the outskirts of Peshawar also shows how Afghans and Pakistanis work together, calling xenophobic public debates into question. Indeed, reports are now revealing the positive Afghan contribution to Pakistan, showing that, if anything, Afghans are boosting local and national economies. 

Sub-human beings? Exemplary victims? Burdens on the state? Not at all. The self-humanising lives of Afghans in Pakistan demonstrate a very different reality.


*All names of interviewees have been changed to protect their confidentiality.


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