September 21, 2023

Abandoning the Afghans: Pakistan can ‘no longer accommodate’ refugees

Representational Picture: An Afghan refugees. Courtesy: European Union/ECHO/Pierre Prakash

The Afghan refugee crisis has become a major challenge for the international community, especially for its neighbors. Eyes are being set on Iran and Pakistan, but both claim they can no longer bear the responsibility of Afghan refugees.

For the past four decades, Afghans have been fleeing war, poverty and fear of the Taliban to Iran and Pakistan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 3 million Afghans are currently seeking refuge in Iran. About one million of these Afghans are registered as refugees in Iran.

While a large number of Afghan refugees coming to Pakistan started living here, many moved to Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi, Quetta, Islamabad and other major cities and started businesses. Meanwhile, many Afghan refugees in Pakistan got married during their stay and their next generation grew up here.

In Pakistan, a number of high-ranking officials, including the President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, have repeatedly called on the United Nations and other major powers to resettle Afghan refugees after peace in Afghanistan, but most are reluctant to return.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan has been repeatedly convincing the world that if Afghanistan is not helped once again, there is a danger of war, due to which once again a large number of refugees may turn to Pakistan, which Pakistan can afford.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s National Security Adviser Dr Moeed Yusuf have repeatedly said that Pakistan could no longer bear the burden of Afghan refugees.

Yusuf says it would be a big mistake if the international community left Afghanistan alone this time as in the past. “The wait and see policy will not work, the basic meaning of [which] can be taken as destruction,” he insists.

“This will lead to an increase in the number of Afghan refugees and security issues in the region. We are no longer in a position to accept any more refugees. The United States must heed to Pakistan’s advice,” he adds.

Yusuf added Pakistan is making every effort to help the Afghan people but efforts should be intensified at the international level to prevent human tragedy. “The international community should not repeat the mistake of the past in leaving Afghanistan alone,” he says.

Regarding India, Yusuf adds, “our neighboring country is making false propaganda against Pakistan by creating false stories. India took advantage of the situation in Afghanistan to fool the US while the Afghan government was the cause of the catastrophe.”

Pakistan has completed fencing of almost 90 percent of the Pak-Afghan border and deployed the army and the Frontier Constabulary, a militia under the federal interior ministry, to man it.

“There are fears that members of the banned terror outfits like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the TTP or Pakistani Taliban) might enter Pakistan from Afghanistan in the guise of refugees and create unrest in the country,” Yusuf said. The Pakistani Taliban are based in Afghanistan but differ from the Afghan Taliban.

Pakistan is not alone in worrying about a flood of migration from Afghanistan. European officials have voiced concerns about the prospect of refugees traveling to the European Union. And neighboring countries like Uzbekistan are limiting the number of refugees allowed in.

All EU member states, including Germany, are concerned about the possible flow of Afghan refugees to Europe. No final decision has yet been made by the European Union on granting asylum to Afghan refugees. According to a joint statement issued after a special meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels, illegal immigrants will be barred from entering Europe and those in need will be protected in Afghanistan’s neighbors. The United Nations estimates that as a result of the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan, up to half a million Afghans may flee their homeland in search of asylum.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Moss had assured during his recent visit to Pakistan that Germany would not leave the region alone. The German foreign minister also offered possible assistance to Pakistan. In light of the current crisis, Germany wants to provide 500 million euros in aid to Afghanistan and its neighbors to help cover the cost of refugee care.

There are currently 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan. In addition, another 600,000 unregistered or illegally arrived Afghan refugees are in Pakistan. Islamabad government does not want to bear the burden of more refugees. Shah Mehmood Qureshi maintains, “The question for Pakistan is not about money, but about lack of capacity.”

According to a 2016 Gallup survey, 90% of Pakistanis support excluding Afghans without visas from entering the nation to aid counter-terrorism operations. While there are some indicators that these attitudes are changing, Afghan migrants are still seen as a security concern. According to the 2018 World Values Survey, 57 percent of respondents said immigration increased crime and 58 percent believed immigration increased the risk of terrorism.

“We are already hosting three million Afghan refugees. Our economy is not stable enough to take more, and at the same time, the COVID-19 situation doesn’t allow us to open borders.” Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry says.

If Pakistan faces another Afghan refugee crisis, Chaudhry maintains his government is preparing a “comprehensive strategy” to isolate refugees in temporary camps near the border. “We would like them not to enter the cities, as happened in the ‘90s,” he adds.

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