Safe Haven Pakistan, or Is It?

Author: Charlie
Editor: MinhAnh Nguyen

“In the absence of a national refugee legal framework, UNHCR conducts refugee status determination under its mandate (Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees adopted by the General Assembly Resolution 428 (V) of 14 December 1950) and on behalf of the Government of Pakistan in accordance with the 1993 Cooperation Agreement between the Government of Pakistan and UNHCR.

Pakistan generally accepts UNHCR decisions to grant refugee status and allows asylum-seekers (who are still undergoing the procedure) as well as recognized refugees to remain in Pakistan pending identification of a durable solution.” –

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) [1]

Pakistan is home to one of the largest humanitarian institutions in the world when it comes to housing refugees.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was more than four decades ago, saw the displacement of more than a million Afghans into Pakistan [2]. Since then, the number of refugees in Pakistan increased significantly. The new threat of global terror and the continued uncertainty in Afghanistan due to continued violence have made it difficult for most refugees to retain their homes, as though this is not enough of complexity as the new generation Afghans that have been born in exile adds a new twist.

Recent developments show that the new generations of Afghans that were born or rather that are born in exile do not have knowledge of their homeland, thus making it difficult to repatriate them. “In violation of international law, they were sent to face a situation even more dangerous than the one they first fled. For many of them, Afghanistan is a country they have never known” (Waraich, 2019) [3]

Growing distrust towards Afghans was heightened by the 2014 attack in the border town of Peshawar, this suspicion was fuelled by the belief that Afghans were involved in the attacks. This led to the summary arrest, detention and deportation of Afghans, some authors believe that the idea to deport Afghan immigrants had long been contemplated by the Pakistan government and this incident gave them probable cause. Siddiqui in 2019 notes that Pakistan, as the host of the largest refugee population in the world, is trying to figure out how to push migrants out [4].

Another scholar points out that there is a large number of Afghan refugees living outside camps. “Sharbat Gula was one of more than 600,000 people expelled to Afghanistan in 2016, in what Human Rights Watch described as the “world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times” (Waraich, 2019) [3].

Having a large group of migrants living in a country without a proper framework for dealing with them poses a myriad of problems for the host country. The first problem is that of feeding and accommodating a large number of people, hence “more than 70% of registered Afghan refugees live outside camps, mostly as a result of the discontinuation of food assistance in camps” (Khan, 2014) [5]. As highlighted by Khan, the camps could not provide enough for all the people, hence most of the migrants ended up living outside the camp.

The UNHCR has a huge task of keeping up with refugees in Pakistan and documenting them, considering the government had stopped issuing documentation for refugees at some point in the past.

The other challenge is access to healthcare, a basic human right. Yet, it is very difficult for refugees to get into Pakistan, considering the fact that their healthcare system is already stressed. Dr Syed Rizwan Ali working with the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) observes that although Pakistan has been host to more than a million registered Afghan refugees, there is little to non-existent healthcare for refugees [6]. The EU in support of the call by ICMC stated that:

“the country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, therefore, refugees are not legally recognised and, as a result, are cut off from basic services, including health care. Challenges have increased over the past few weeks since the coronavirus hit Pakistan in mid-March. The European Union (EU) is supporting its partners – Humanitarian & Inclusion (HI) and the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) – to ensure that vulnerable Afghan refugees continue to have access to quality health care amidst the ongoing outbreak.” [6]

Another human right that is a challenge to most refugees across the globe is access to education. Not only does lack of access to education pose a threat to the future of the young Afghans, but it also limits the potential of Afghanistan to rebuild through the use of a skilled and educated workforce.

“It is important to recognise that a lack of good education for refugees will stand in the way of achieving durable solutions and will be an obstacle to sustainable development and reconstruction of both home and host countries”

Siddiqui (2019) [4].

As the world focuses on the new set goals for sustainable development, it is important to invest in educating the next generation.

An MoU signed by the UNHCR and UNICEF highlights that the majority of refugees are under the age of 25, pointing out a fact that some of these refugees have never seen their motherland, hence this repatriation poses a danger to these young individuals [7]. The UNHCR and Pakistan have been offering incentives for Afghans to return back home. Of the over 4 million refugees that were in Pakistan, only 1.4 million are left and it is prudent to assume that most of these people were born in Pakistan and have come to know Pakistan as their home [8] [9].

The president of Pakistan at one point highlighted the desire to have Afghans acquire citizenship, but so far, it has remained a pipe dream [10]. Some scholars have gone as far as describing the situation as a political move that gives the Pakistan government room to use the refugees as pawns in negotiations.

Although Afghans have uncertainty about how their status will be affected as time goes on, it is important to note that the UN Secretary-General has said that:

“Pakistan has provided the world with a global public good supporting Afghan refugees and it’s time for the international community to assume its responsibilities, and to support Pakistan very meaningfully…We must recognize that international support for Pakistan has been minimal compared to your own national efforts. As we look to the challenges ahead, the global community must step up.” [11] [12]

Pakistan is doing tremendous work towards assisting Afghan refugees, as well as helping to broker peace in Afghanistan, but there is a need to note that Pakistan should come up with a better framework on how to better assist refugees and process asylum requests. The world needs to assist Pakistan by offering financial aid and support to refugees.

Image: Photo by Muhammad Muzamil on Unsplash

Safe Haven Pakistan, or Is It?
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