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Refugees and our conscience

Born to an Afghan family living in our neighbourhood, Wali was a five-year-old child who used to be my son’s playmate. The only thing I remember about him is the fact that he would cry whenever his parents mentioned of going back to Afghanistan. “No, I was born here. I am a Pakistani,” he would say. A young adult today, Wali must be under relentless pressure to return to his country, if he is still in Pakistan. To me, Wali is the quintessential Afghan refugee who belongs to this land but has no way to assert his claim.

A heartless, cruel and insulting statement from Sarfaraz Bugti, the interior minister of Balochistan, has ignited a debate over the future of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Though Bugti’s language has been widely condemned, forcing him to retract his statement, there appears to be a broad agreement in Pakistan that Afghan refugees must ‘return’ to ‘their’ country, sooner than later.

There are two issues belonging to two different domains that have been confused and mixed together in this debate. The first is the problematic relationship between the two neighbouring states of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the second is the ‘problem’ of Afghan refugees based in Pakistan.

States are heartless, self-serving creatures run by people who are supposed to guard their national interests, as defined by the ruling elite of the country, as rational actors. Refugees, on the other hand, are vulnerable humans who leave their homes, their communities and their countries to find shelter in a ‘new world’ and they deserve compassion, sympathy and rights.

While states remain relatively stable, human beings transform with their surroundings and may change beyond recognition within their lifetimes. That’s why many countries recognise ‘jus soli’ – the ‘right of the soil’ or the right of anyone born in the territory of a state to nationality or citizenship. However, in much of the modern world, refugees still remain ‘strangers’.

In a remarkable essay, ‘The Stranger’, written in 1908, German sociologist George Simmel describes a ‘stranger’ as “the person who comes today and stays tomorrow”, a “potential wanderer” whose position in society is defined “by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning”. Although the stranger is a spatial member of the group, in that he is physically present, Simmel explains that he is not a full member in a social sense. Because he is from somewhere else, the stranger instead occupies a specific position ‘in’ the group but not ‘of’ it.

Simmel’s idea of the stranger is often discussed while debating attitudes towards refugees as they ‘live’ among ‘us’ but are not of ‘us. They are not only rejected as one of us but their positive contribution to society is also often ignored and they are considered a source of threat to society.

The ‘strangeness’ that often works against refugees can be seen as a positive attribute – at least for a limited period. After the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan migration was actively encouraged by Pakistan and its allies. At times, mujahideen, supported by Pakistan, even used violence to evict Afghans from their villages. By 1987, more than 3.5 million Afghans had migrated to Pakistan, making it the world’s largest recipient of refugees. The West, during that period, was generous towards Afghan refugees and a visit to their camps used to be an important item on the itinerary of the world leaders. In the official narrative of Pakistan, these refugees were brave mujahideen.

Refugees at that time were considered helpful to the interests of the country and its superpower patron, the US. Their camps also served as recruiting grounds for the Afghan mujahideen and later the Taliban. The state favoured madressah education for their children and their affairs were often mediated through mujahideen groups and religious parties, particularly the Jamaat-e-Islami and JUI. The schools in these camps used textbooks that were “filled with violent images and militant teachings.” For example, children were “taught to count with illustrations showing tanks, missiles, and land mines.” Printed with foreign funding, millions of these textbooks were used long after 1994.

Unlike Iran, which confined Afghan refugees to camps, Pakistan allowed them the freedom to move around in the country and engage in businesses activities – a policy that helped integration and smooth relationship between the host and the migrant communities. Afghans have lived in various parts of the country without any inter-community conflict, sharing neighbourhoods, working and studying together and even intermarrying.

However, many have strived to maintain themselves at subsistence level. Confronted with limited opportunities, a large number of Afghan refugees entered into a debt-bondage relationship in Pakistani brick-kilns and, according to a Human Rights Watch Report, some have been forced to remain in Pakistan against their will even though they want to return.

The attitude towards Afghan refugees started changing in the wake of September 11 attacks when mujahideen became terrorists and the Afghan character lost its glory. From a strategic asset, Afghan refugees turned into a strategic burden and very soon a stick to beat the Afghan state with. Their involvement in crimes and terrorism, particularly with the TTP, was exaggerated, putting their security and wellbeing at risk and souring the relationship between the refugees and the host communities.

Point 19 of the National Action Plan states: “Comprehensive policy will be formed for registration of Afghan refugees”. To many analysts, it is an indirect hint at the resolve of the state to send back all Afghan refugees, without leaving any scope for their assimilation or integration in Pakistan.

In the age of identities and the modern nation-state, the refugee is a stranger who must be through restoration into the nation-state system using one of the three ways outlined by the UNHCR: naturalisation, repatriation, and resettlement to a third country. The Pakistani state and the overwhelming majority of its citizens are not willing to naturalise Afghan refugees who have been on this land for more than three decades, not even their children or grandchildren who were born here. Similarly, there are no third countries willing to take them any longer. The only place left for Afghans is Afghanistan. To Afghanistan they must return – to the villages they have never seen, to farms that have become barren or taken over by other people and to professions for which they have no skills.

Between 2002 and 2015, 3.9 million refugees have been repatriated to Afghanistan from Pakistan. At the moment, there are 1.5 million documented Afghans in this country, with valid computerised Afghan Citizen Proof of Registration Cards (PoR). There may be an additional one million Afghan refugees who do not have such a card and are not considered legal persons. The PoR cards will expire towards the end of this month and the Pakistani government must decide about their future by then.

Afghan refugees have been with us for too long to be considered aliens. We are only hurting our own humanity and blemishing our own history by forcing them to pay the cost of changing foreign policies and inter-state rivalries through discrimination and harassment. It is not only their lives that are at stake, but our conscience as well.

The writer is a social anthropologist and development professional.

Email: zaighamkhan@yahoo.com Twitter: @zaighamkhan

Zaigham Khan, "Refugees and our conscience," The News. 2016-06-06.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , National action plan , Jamaat-e-Islami , Foreign policy , Diplomacy , Taliban , Terrorism , Afghanistan , Pakistan , JUI

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