Afghanistan was once the land where global power giants, including the United States and Soviet Union, confronted each other for global dominance and to eliminate rival ideologies. The fortunate Afghans escaped the chaos of violence and destruction while millions took refuge in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.
The concept of refuge itself implies a sense of security from turmoil; however, many Afghan refugees have been compelled and indoctrinated to become the strategic assets of the governments of different countries, especially Pakistan. For Pakistan, they have been used as opportune tools in managing the relationship with Afghanistan.
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When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and backed different communist regimes, Pakistan with the help of the United States and Saudi Arabia trained, sheltered, and equipped Afghans against the government. Pakistani influence also helped prepare textbooks that taught and radicalized Afghan children. Apocryphal accounts note mathematics books with questions like “If you kill two infidels out of five, how many infidels remain?” These books also had images of bombs, AK-47s, bullets, and grenades. One of the biggest opportunities Pakistan seized early on was finding and training Afghan refugees through local religious clerics who maintained a relationship with the Pakistani government.
Afghan Refugees and Pakistan’s Economy
Upon arriving to Pakistan, Afghan refugees settled in areas where there was little to no development. They independently built their homes and villages, trying to continue living a normal life. Pakistan’s impoverished lands turned into small cities and thousands of acres of cultivated lands flourished through the efforts of hardworking Afghans. For instance, in the 1980s, Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, resembled little more than a desert, but the arrival of Afghans turned it into the fourth largest city in Pakistan.
Still, vulnerability for refugees continued and extreme poverty began to stab its sharp edge on Afghan livelihoods in Pakistan. Afghan refugees provided cheap labor and started playing an instrumental role in the development of Pakistan. However, in return, no legal rights of labor were given to them from the Pakistan’s government. Since the refugees were not eligible to work as white-collar workers, most of them ended up with blue-collar jobs, earning an insignificant daily wage. Moreover, as frustration emerged with the low quality public services available for refugees, they looked for a better life in other parts of the world. However, many Afghan refugees continued to significantly contribute to the expansion of the Pakistani economy through remittances to their families back in Pakistan.
Furthermore, there are thousands of Afghans who are working in Afghanistan while their families live in Pakistan. During the holidays, they go to Pakistan and contribute their earnings to Pakistani GDP. Pakistani service providers greatly benefit from Afghans moving across the border. According to Ummat, a newspaper in Pakistan, on an annual basis, Afghan refugees pour 34 billion Pakistani rupees ($325 million) into Pakistan’s economy. Keeping in view the huge amount of money and resources coming through refugees, it’s a win-win situation for Pakistan in financial terms.
Moreover, businesses in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are largely run by Afghan refugees. Afghan businessmen import clothes and other items from South Korea and China. A cluster of shopping markets named Karkhano in Peshawar are run by Afghans. These entrepreneurial Afghans have kept their wealth in Pakistani banks, which as a result benefits Pakistan’s economy.
Additionally, the money that is poured into Pakistan for the sake of Afghan refugees’ welfare has provided thousands of job opportunities to local Pakistanis. For instance, the Afghan refugee commissioner’s office employs 700 people, whose job is to process Afghan refugees in Pakistan. These 700 employees’ salaries are paid by UNHCR. Additionally, many other international aid agencies employ thousands of local Pakistanis. Corruption is in full swing as well; Afghan refugees on a near daily basis are paying huge amounts in bribes to Pakistani police in order to escape frequent harassment, which has become a common source of revenue for the country’s security officials.
Finally, the UNHCR and other international donor organizations, including the Norwegian Refugees Council and Swedish International Development Agency give almost $150 million annually to the Pakistani government for the sake of providing services to Afghan refugees. Almost nothing from these sums has been spent on Afghan refugees; rather it mostly goes directly or indirectly into the hands of Pakistan’s government.
Consequences for Afghanistan
Afghanistan will receive most of the aforementioned benefits by way of Afghans who return home. Afghan refugees have always been used as instruments of war. Pakistan-based insurgents, who are significantly trained in Punjab and transported to Peshawar, fight in Afghanistan in the spring, while crossing the Durand line and returning back for further training. The return of Afghan refugees will have a salutary impact over the decrease of violence in Afghanistan. Additionally, the Afghans who see Afghanistan through the lens of Pakistan and hold a negative view about Afghans, Afghanistan, and their national identities will have this bias slowly fade away once they mingle in this society.
The remittances that Afghans used to send back to their families in Pakistan will finally come into Afghanistan and that will boost the aid-dependent and fragile economy in the country. Upon their return to Afghanistan, UNCHR has decided to pay $400 to every single refugee, amounting to a total potentially as high as $800 million. Refugees are likely to spend their money for the construction of their homes, which will eventually generate economic value.
Bringing Afghan Refugees Back
The Afghan ambassador and presidential special envoy to Pakistan, Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, initiated a campaign titled “Khapal Watan, Gul Watan” for Afghan refugees to return Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan has been marginalized and isolated on international stage due to an active Afghan government foreign policy. The Pakistani government cracks down on Afghan refugees, violating all international regulations in revenge. Pakistani police conduct night raids and imprison refugees who hold valid legal documents. According to some reports, thousands of Afghans have been jailed.
When great numbers of Afghans migrated to Pakistan, Islamabad used the opportunity to prove that they are the most generous nation on planet and depicted themselves as champions of humanity. To the Islamic world, they tried to convey a message through different channels, attempting to convey that Pakistan is the second Medina for Muslims. Yet, the fact concretely remains that Pakistan did nothing for Afghan refugees; rather, it simply stole aid and the resources sent in the name of Afghans. Further, these refugees were channeled into lives of violence against the Afghan state in several instances.
The return of Afghan refugees will give the Afghan government a tough time since some might continue to bear sympathy with Pakistani religious extremists and end up as recruiters for the anti-Afghan cause. The Afghan government must put all resources into use by providing enough services to ease the troubles of refugees upon their arrival to their home country. Vulnerability has made their own kind fragile and now, with the flourishing of Afghanistan, it is necessary to have Afghan refugees return in order to plant and grow the seeds of prosperity once again, for the soils of Afghanistan yearn for their return.
Aziz Amin Ahmadzai writes on political, security and social issues in South, West, and Central Asia. He is based in Kabul and tweets at @azizamin786.