Pakistan’s decision to speed up the return of the three million Afghan refugees living across the border places strain on a bilateral relationship already suffering from a massive trust deficit.
As the US-led coalition forces have decided to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, there are many concerns over the future of Afghanis within the country and abroad. There are many questions about the capability of the Afghan National Army to maintain peace and security, and neighbouring countries are figuring out their role in the future of Afghanistan beyond 2014. However, despite this uncertainty, countries hosting a large number of Afghan refugees see this situation as an opportunity to relieve themselves of the burden.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan make up the world’s biggest refugee community – around 3 million – and Islamabad has decided to speed up the process of returning them to Afghanistan. These Afghan refugees have already been living on extended visas or refugee permits in Pakistan, many of them since the Afghan-Soviet War during the 1980s. The continuous instability faced by Afghanistan – civil war, Taliban rule, and the international intervention – saw thousands of refugees preferring to live in exile.
Due to this long history of instability in Afghanistan, there has been a constant flow of refugees to and from Pakistan. More than eight million Afghans came to Pakistan between 1979 and 2002. It is believed that half of them returned after the collapse of the Taliban regime, but many more then came to Pakistan because of increasing insecurity in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has been keen to end the war, hence the increased number of troops which heightened the conflict in Afghanistan and consequent greater civilian and military loss. According to a report, 2011 was the deadliest year in the country since the invasion, with 3,021 civilian deaths compared to 2,790 in 2010.
It is hard to understand the logic of the coalition troops’ decision to leave Afghanistan in such a hasty manner. The war is far from being over. The country is home to widespread insecurity caused by the war and terrorist attacks, weak rule of law and corruption, underdevelopment and a failed peace process. Under such circumstances, millions of Afghan refugees do not see their homeland as safe for their return.
Nonetheless, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have returned; some in response to hopes of good opportunities and security, some because the Pakistan government did not extend their refugee status. Many find it very difficult to resettle in Afghanistan after living for decades in Pakistan. As per the plan in Islamabad, almost all of the Afghan refugees will lose their refugee status by the end of 2012. Thus, they are vulnerable to deportation even while the future of Afghanistan is unclear.
Authorities in Pakistan have viewed the millions of Afghan refugees as a serious threat to law and order and social stability in the country. They have been looking at the possibilities of sending Afghan refugees home for many years.
In Kabul, the government has said it is willing to take their own people, but not under the present circumstances. The widespread economic, social and political instability in the country makes it unfit to receive a huge influx of refugees. The numbers of refugees returning to Afghanistan has actually declined from 110,000 in 2010 to 50,000 in 2011. The international community has intervened in an attempt to ensure Afghanistan has the right conditions for the return of refugees. The UNHCR chief met with the PM of Pakistan in February 2012, but has not managed to change Islamabad’s position on this.
It is easier for the international community to say that Pakistan is wrong to force millions of Afghan refugees to return to a country that is ill prepared to deal with a huge influx of people. Afghanistan is an aid-dependent economy, but so, largely, is Pakistan, and the latter’s economy has been bearing the burden of Afghan refugees for decades. Therefore, there is need to understand the rationale behind Pakistan’s decision. Pakistan has faced economic and security challenges because of hosting Afghan refugees in such large numbers. Thus, at this point the international community needs to look at the concerns of both countries to resolve the issue of Afghan refugees in Pakistan because both countries need support and mechanisms to deal with the issue of refugees.