Afghan Tragedy Unfolds in Pakistan

For the last two months the international attention has been focussed on the continuing Gaza crisis, yet in its background another human tragedy has been unfolding in Pakistan, noticed by few except the humanitarian agencies.

Reportedly, more than 370,000 Afghans have fled Pakistan since 1 October, after Pakistan vowed to expel more than a million undocumented refugees, mostly Afghans.

However, in a significant ruling the Supreme Court of Pakistan observed on 2 December 2023, that Pakistan is a signatory to United Nations’ conventions safeguarding the rights of refugees and these agreements bind Pakistan.

Earlier, an apex committee, chaired by Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar, on 3 October 2023 had issued a deadline for foreign nationals to depart voluntarily or risk deportation by Pakistan by 31 October.

Reportedly, this was to affect some 1.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan but also members of other persecuted communities including China’s Uyghurs and Myanmar’s Rohingyas.

While the majority of the over 4 million Afghans living in Pakistan has been in the country since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, between 600,000 and 800,000 Afghans are believed to have arrived in Pakistan after the Taliban 2.0 took over power in 2021.

Pakistani Crackdown

As per media reports, Police and other officials have carried out mass detentions, night raids, and beatings against Afghans. They’ve seized property and livestock, and bulldozed homes. They’ve also demanded bribes, confiscated jewellery, and destroyed identity documents. Pakistani police have sometimes sexually harassed Afghan women and girls and threatened them with sexual assault.

Among those being deported or coerced to leave are people who would be at a greater risk of persecution in Afghanistan, including women and girls, human rights defenders, journalists, and former government employees who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

Some of those at risk had previously been promised resettlement in the US, UK, Germany, and Canada, but resettlement processes are not proceeding quickly enough.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people into Afghanistan “couldn’t have come at a worse time,” as the country faces a prolonged economic crisis that has left two thirds of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, and now, winter is setting in.

The new arrivals often come with almost nothing, because Pakistani authorities have prohibited Afghans from taking out more than 50,000 Pakistani rupees (US$ 175) each. Humanitarian agencies have described shortages of tents and other basic services for those arriving.

The area of Torkham – the crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanistan -, lies just outside the city of Jalalabad. The Taliban government has converted this area into a massive tent city, bereft of civic amenities, to accommodate the influx from Pakistan.

Souring of Pak-Afghan Relations

Since 2021, Islamabad has attempted to close its border with Afghanistan with little success. Apparently, as expected the bilateral relationship between the two countries after the Taliban’s takeover of power in Afghanistan didn’t worked out on expected lines.

The Taliban 2.0 were not the same lot as the earlier Taliban. This time around they were surer of themselves and instead of following Pakistani diktats through ISI, the Taliban charted a new course of their own.

The relationship even soured more, once the new Taliban government started fencing along the border on the Durand Line. Added to that was the issue of free trade between the two countries, which stopped flow of goods into Afghanistan via Pakistan twice over the last two years. Pakistan has also implemented several measures to tighten the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA), which critics say has been misused, for smuggling goods back into Pakistan.

Additionally, over the past year, there has been a surge of militant attacks inside Pakistan, with most claimed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a close ally of the Afghan Taliban. Pakistani authorities have blamed Afghan migrants in part for the rise in attacks.

Only last week, an air force base was attacked in Mianwali, the capital of the Punjab province, though most attacks take place near the long border with Afghanistan, where Islamabad says the TTP has safe-havens.

When the decision to deport refugees was announced, Interim Minister Sarfraz Bugti had stated that out of the 24 suicide bombings in Pakistan this year, Afghan nationals carried out 14.

The Taliban government in Kabul has denied involvement and has done little to allay Islamabad’s security concerns. Refusing to take back any refugees, Kabul also disapproves of Islamabad’s repatriation plan.

As tempers rise, the Afghan interim Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund has criticised Pakistan’s decision to expel refugees, saying that Islamabad had violated international laws, while his deputy Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai has warned Pakistan “not to force their hand to react over the move”.

Hostility is so deeply entrenched against Afghans that Jan Achakzai, caretaker minister in Balochistan province, has said that the expulsion of refugees would continue, “no matter which political government comes to power after the elections.” The tenure of the current caretaker government ends in February 2024.

Perhaps the Pakistan government can take lessons from the practice of the Prophet with regard to immigrants from the early history of Islam. The teaching of Islam has very important foundations for providing mutual help among immigrants and citizens. The Holy Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet contain many examples of peaceful societies made of immigrants as well as regular citizens. The Prophet says, “You cannot be a real believer unless you want for your brother what you want for yourself.” If indeed they take lessons from the Prophets tradition, then they could adopt a more humane approach to the issue.

Though the current situation may have arisen due to Pakistan’s own economic woes, in addition to its souring relationship with the Taliban 2.0, yet, the major sufferer in this case is the common Afghan. In this backdrop it becomes the duty of international humanitarian agencies and western governments to take cognisance of the issue and start a slew of measures to ensure care of Afghan citizens and also try to get relations patched up between the two neighbouring countries.

(Asad Mirza is a Delhi-based senior political and international affairs commentator.)

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