Busy working on a film documenting women’s harassment in Balochistan’s public spaces, Rani Wahidi, 20, feels energetic and hopeful. She’s from the third generation of Afghans born in Quetta and has a master’s degree from the University of Balochistan in media studies. Nevertheless, she is unable to open a bank account for her documentary business and social activism.
Wahidi smiles anyway, with a shine in her eyes, “I am living in Pakistan and I [was] born here, but [I am] sad I cannot have the privileges provided by the civilized world to people, because me, my parents and my grandparents were unable to get nationality here in Pakistan during [our] past four decades of refugees status.”
“I am hopeful that Imran Khan who is now leading the country can help [Afghan refugee] children to have national identity cards. We can speak Urdu and have been to local schools, colleges and universities,” Wahidi says. She goes on lament that some “make fun” of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan: they are not Pakistani but they cannot go back to Afghanistan. “[We are] sad we cannot go back to Afghanistan either.”
Thousands of youths like Wahidi have been deprived of their basic human rights. They are skilled, but the market is not open for them because they are in the crosshairs of a nationality issue. While they have been born in Pakistan and have assimilated into the society, they remain Afghan refugees.
Could Pakistan accept Afghan and Bengali refugee children born in Pakistan as Pakistani? Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan recently floated the idea — met with praise by some and opposition by others.
Speaking in the Karachi’s governor house, Khan stressed that Afghan refugees who have been in Pakistan for decades are exploited and that pushes them toward crime. Not documenting them, he argued, as Pakistani nationals is a humanitarian issue.
“The Bengali and Afghan children are unable to get employment as they are the deprived class of Karachi, and due to this deprivation, they are pushed towards street crime. We will provide passports and identity cards to those refugees whose children were born here. When Americans can provide a passport to children born in their country, why can’t we?” Khan asked.
Khan argued that on humanitarian grounds the children of Afghan refugees who are living in Pakistan should have shelter within the society and they should be provided with passports and national identity cards.
“It has been 40 years since Bengalis have been living here, we will provide them with passports and [national] identity cards, as well as those Afghans whose children are born here. There needs to be a more humane approach towards this crisis, and we will work towards helping them progress and develop,” Khan said.
Afghan refugees fled their homeland for Pakistan, Iran and Western nations after the Soviet invasion and the subsequent war between the Moscow-supported regime in Kabul and insurgents across the country. The fighting continued for a decade, from 1979 to 1989 when Soviet forces finally left Afghanistan.
Then different insurgent factions fought each other for control. The chaotic civil war gave rise to the Taliban which seized control in 1994. The Taliban was ousted in 2001 by Western forces. Near forty years of conflict have wracked Afghanistan.
“We welcome the proposal by the Pakistani government leader Imran Khan,” said Qaiser Khan Afridi, the UNHCR spokesperson for Pakistan. “We [have] 1.4 million registered Afghans in Pakistan,” he said. According to Afridi, there are 320,000 Afghan refugees in Balochistan alone, with the rest residing in other provinces and Islamabad.
One demography expert who did not want to be named said that a majority of the remaining Afghan refugees were registered by government security agencies after the Peshawar Army Public School attack in 2014 in which 132 school children were killed. Pakistan launched the National Action Plan, a broader security program after the attack.
In the post-9/11 era, Afghanistan has regained its sovereignty, established a democratic government system and the world has invested in developing different state institutions as well as training the country’s security forces. But war rages on. According to 2018 statistics released by the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation the Taliban and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) have caused the displacement of 1.3 million people. The ministry also records 7.2 million refugees as having return to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2018.
“Pakistan’s constitution tells us that those children who are born in Pakistan have the right to get nationality,” Khan said, responding to reservations expressed by Akhtar Mengal, leader of the Balochistan National Party at a gathering of the National Assembly. “They [Afghan and Bengali refugees] are unable to return back to their countries and nor you [the state] provide them citizenship. They are exploited. They work on half the pay provided to a Pakistani, it is a humanitarian issue and being humans we should look at their [refugees] issues, there should be a policy to provide citizenship,” Khan said. “They [the Afghan and Bengali refugees children] have been born here and International Conventions exist that we cannot repatriate these refugees forcefully.”
“Those [refugees] who have been settled and have married here, their children born here, we cannot let them remain non-citizens. It is a human rights issue, they are human. No decision about their presence is causing the street crimes in Karachi. They are [an] underclass, they will cause issues in society if they remain deprived,” Khan said.
Mengal and his Balochistan National Party are of the view that Afghan refugees should have a dignified return to their homeland. Afghanistan’s sovereignty should be respected, their argument goes, and a plan to stop war in Afghanistan is the solution to the problem. He considers the Afghan refugees a threat to a society already suffering from a shortage of resources, employment opportunities, healthcare, education, and development.
Mengal spoke to media after the National Assembly meeting, saying “This is a national issue, and it should be discussed if we provide them [refugees] nationality and passport tomorrow they can be involved in terror activities.”
He went on to say “If we are including these refugees into our population then there will be a demographic issue, we are unable to provide jobs to our own masses then how can we lift the load of these surplus refugees?”
The population of Pakistan is growing rapidly. The 2017 national census pegged the population as surpassing the 200 million mark.
“More people, more resources, which Pakistan cannot afford in near future. We would [need] to have more drinking water, food, houses for living, schools, hospitals and market for jobs,” says Samia Ali Shah of the Population Council, an international organization working on population.
“The best way for the government and the masses is to go through a better policy planned for family planning to stop the rapid increase in the population of the country otherwise we would have nothing to live upon and the state would not be capable to provide the needs of those millions of people,” Shah said.
On the other hand, Pashtun nationalists who share social, historical and cultural roots with many of the Afghan refugees have endorsed Khan’s apparent offer.
“Three generations of Afghans have been living here in Pakistan and Pakistani citizenship is their basic right,” said Asfandyar Wali Khan, president of the Awami National Party, while addressing a press conference in Bacha Khan Markaz Peshawar. “Government should not politicize a humanitarian issue we are faced by in a time when the refugees from eastern border [India] can have citizenship and ruling right in Pakistan while the refugees from western border [Afghanistan] are faced by deprivation of rights from generations and after using these refugees in the war in Afghanistan are left orphans [referring to U.S.S.R invasion].”
The worsening security situation in Afghanistan motivates Afghan refugees to remain in Pakistan rather than return.
According to the latest quarterly report on the security of Afghanistan by the U.S. Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), “the Afghan government controlled or influenced 376,685 square kilometers (58.5 percent) of Afghanistan’s total land area of roughly 643,788 square kilometers, down about one percentage point since last quarter. The insurgency controlled or influenced 124,694 square kilometers (19.4 percent) of the total land area, also down one point since last quarter. The remaining 142,409 square kilometers (22.1 percent) was contested by the government and insurgents.”
According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, known as UNAMA, “there were 5,122 civilian casualties (1,692 deaths and 3,430 injured) in the first six months of 2018 – a three per cent overall decrease in casualties from last year.”
“But civilian deaths were up by one percent, the most recorded in the same time period since UNAMA began documenting civilian casualties in 2009,” reads the report.
Instead of providing national identity cards to Afghan refugees, the Afghan government has consistently asked that Pakistan help end the war in the country. The presence of so-called safe havens for groups like the Afghan Taliban, the Quetta Shura, and the Haqqani Network on Pakistani territory has been an endless bone of contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In a phone interview, the Afghan Consul General in Quetta Wahidullah Momand said Pakistan can help Afghanistan in bringing peace in the region and in particular to Afghanistan.
“The Afghans have respect and pride at their home Afghanistan alone, they need to have a life of dignity at their motherland so every Afghan living in Pakistan should return to their motherland,” he said. “If Pakistan honestly plays its role in bringing peace in Afghanistan it would be far better than providing nationality to some of the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.”
Khan’s decisiveness on the Afghan refugee issue has waned in the weeks since his first comments on the matter. The new prime minister has now said his comments were intended to start a debate, rather than signal a decision.
Malik Achakzai teaches journalism and mass communication at the University of Balochistan Quetta. He is a freelancer, researcher and analyst on conflict, culture, climate change, and human rights in South Asia.