Afghans’ Exodus: The Burden on Pakistan

The conflicts, wars and political upheavals displaced many people from their home countries. Since the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, many Afghans have flown out of the country apprehensive of the uncertain situation arising at home. Among other countries, Pakistan topped the list by hosting the largest number of around 2.8 million documented and undocumented Afghan refugees and received over 600,000 Afghanis since the Doha Agreement in 2021. Providing asylum to a large number of refugees not only tarnished the social and cultural fabric of Pakistan society but also left a mark on its already dwindling economy and spoilt law and order. 

The Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, following the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from the country. Since then, the country has faced a number of challenges, including human rights violations, suppression of women’s rights and freedom of speech. Consequently, Afghan people who feared the repercussions of their previous affiliation with the US and Afghan government and the rising ideological crisis in the country sought asylum in other neighbouring countries such as Iran, Turkiye, Pakistan, European states and the United States. However, third-country settlement appears unlikely for Afghan refugees in Pakistan amidst its prevailing political and economic crisis. Recently, the Government of Pakistan announced a major crackdown on migrants living in the country illegally, who include an estimated 1.7 million Afghans and received a heavy backlash. Notably, Pakistan is not a signatory to the United Nations’ international conventions regarding refugees – like the Geneva Convention of 1951– but it has welcomed refugees according to international standards.

Historically, the overall impact of Afghan refugees on Pakistan is reported to be negative. Though Pakistan has earned recognition globally for hosting millions of refugees for decades and received assistance, it has done so at notable economic costs. As economic growth in financial year 2023 has dropped from 2 per cent to a projected 0.29 per cent, so there is little hope for Pakistan’s stressed public sector to provide refugees with proper housing, livelihood, education, and health facilities. Though the economy of Pakistan has been in crisis due to many other significant factors, accommodating refugees is a challenging responsibility in such an environment. The influx of refugees implies an increase in population, a decrease in healthcare facilities, a fall in the average distribution of resources, and a rise in the demand (and thus inflation) for essential items such as food, water and transportation. It remained a daunting challenge for Pakistan’s government to effectively deal with the refugee settlement. 

Moreover, the refugee crisis may create certain security concerns for the host country. This is especially true for Pakistan, which has been prey to domestic and foreign terrorism incidents carried out by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, JuD, JiM, ISKP, ISIS. It is vehemently argued that along with the distressed asylum seekers, members of terrorist groups i.e. Al-Qaeda and Taliban also migrate through the Afghan border, seek refuge in the tribal areas of Pakistan and inflict heavy damage to Pakistan people and its property. Terrorist incidents such as APS attack, and attack on Chinese teachers have gravely impacted Pakistan’s image and hindered the long-term stability and development of the country’s economy. Notwithstanding the fact that security concerns rising from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have also posed threats to Chinese interests.

No country in the world accepts undocumented residents who might jeopardize their security, and Pakistan is taking precautionary measures to safeguard its interests by deporting illegal refugees.

Analytically speaking, the impacts of large-scale refugee asylum can be both negative and positive. However, Pakistan must take some critical steps to turn refugees’ burden into a blessing in disguise. Firstly, the Chief Commissionarate Afghan Refugees Pakistan should expedite the process of registration and upgradation of Afghan refugees to formulate policy framework accordingly. Secondly, the government should work to provide basic facilities such as healthcare, education, and housing to refugees as provided to natives. Thirdly, international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should provide both straegic and financial assistance to Pakistan in order to triumphantly meet the requirement. The Refugees Affected and Hosting Areas program is a positive step towards providing development projects in areas where refugees have lived and are still living. The United Nations should also increase its humanitarian aid budget for Afghanistan and its neighbours as the European Commission plans to allocate €600 million to Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, to help cover expenses generated by an influx of Afghans. This is a positive step, but more needs to be done. Fourthly, the general public of Pakistan is mainly reluctant to formally accept Afghan refugees, with the help of international NGOs, the government should work to smooth people-to-people contact in order to overcome this issue. Last but not least, it should also work with the Afghan government and the international community to create conditions that will allow refugees to return home safely and voluntarily. It is an obligation of the international community and binding on the Taliban to provide a conducive environment for Afghans on Afghan soil. Taliban must overcome the challenges of HRVs, women’s suppression, freedom of speech and socio-economic development pledged under the Doha agreement.

In conclusion, the influx of Afghan refugees into Pakistan post-Taliban takeover has significant implications for Pakistan’s economy and social stability. On the one hand, the recent development of a crackdown on illegal immigrants is a policy shift in Islamabad powerhouses amidst rising threats from the Taliban and TTP. On the other hand, a unilateral decision by the Government of Pakistan would not concieve the desired fruit. It is time for Pakistan and Afghanistan to sit at the discussion table to chalk out a deliberated policy framework to resolve the refugee crisis in coordination with international organizations. This is imperative for the regional and global peace order.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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