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Caught between a rock and hard place: Afghans in Pakistan

2 September 20160 comments

Two and a half million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan could be sent back, despite not being born in Afghanistan and never having lived there.

Citing security concerns, the Pakistani Government has said in a statement this week the refugees must leave the country by the end of the year.

The decision has been described by rights groups as “one of the largest forcible returns of refugees in modern history”.

Afghan refugees have been living in Pakistan since the early 1980s, when they fled from Soviet invasion and Pakistan has hosted more than three million Afghan refugees over the past several decades.

The government has repeatedly set and extended deadlines for the refugees to leave in the past but this time it says this year is final, citing it as a matter of national security.

The latest expulsion move is result of the Afghan refugees becoming caught up in the middle of a spat involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US.

The situation flared up in May when a US drone killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour on Pakistani soil.

Now Pakistan is threatening to deport all Afghan refugees, a move that aid agencies say risks leading to a humanitarian disaster.

Many analysts say the threat may turn out to be rhetorical, as Pakistan has failed to enforce previous deportation deadlines.

But after Mansour’s death – and a US move to withhold subsidies for F-16 fighter jets – the warning sends a message to American policy makers who see Islamabad’s leaders as a hindrance to peace that Pakistan must be part of any deal.

Ostensibly, Pakistan’s move reflects concerns over Islamic militants crossing the porous border that has been disputed since they were drawn up in the 1890s.

But many Afghan refugees have been in Pakistan for decades, and international funding for them has diminished recently as the crisis erupted in Syria and Iraq.

There are about 1.5 million documented refugees in Pakistan and officials say another 1.5 million Afghans are in the country with no legal status.

“The return of Afghan refugees is part of the border management program,” a Pakistani Government spokesman said this week.

“They have been here for 36 years and most of them are living outside camps in an unregulated manner. We want them to go back,” the spokesman said.

The Afghans, many of them ethnic minority Hazaras, are caught in the crossfire in the fight against the Taliban and other insurgent groups which has reportedly killed 11,000 civilians last year.

At the same time, Afghanistan’s economy is in free fall. Per capita incomes have fallen since 2012, and the International Monetary Fund expects that trend to continue this year.

While their circumstances leave a lot to be desired, at least refugees in Pakistan can use hospitals, send their children to school and are more or less safe; the same would not be the case in Afghanistan.

An attempt to send them back to Afghanistan might well see Afghan refugees attempt to flee beyond South Asia.

Afghans already comprise the third-highest migrant population in Europe and there are tens of thousands in Australia.

Afghanistan’s government is already struggling to improve conditions for at least 1.2 million Afghans internally displaced by conflict, more than double the number three years ago, according to Amnesty International.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist