Welcome mat wearing thin for Afghan refugees in Pakistan?

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Zia Sarhadi

Shawwal 14, 1419 1999-02-01

World

by Zia Sarhadi (World, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 23, Shawwal, 1419)

There appears to be a dichotomy in the attitude of the Pakistan government as far as the Afghans are concerned. Islamabad is virtually alone in backing the Taliban-backed government in Kabul. Even Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two other countries which had recognised the Taliban government, have become distinctly cool toward Kabul.

When it comes to the question of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the welcome mat appears to be shrinking. Successive governments have grappled with the prickly issue of sending the Afghans back home after accommodating them for more than 20 years but no one has been able to firmly grasp the nettle. Part of the problem lies in locating all the refugees. They are spread all over the country with many acquiring Pakistani identity cards and passports as well.

An added problem is the government’s tenuous hold on the levers of power. Similarly, the society in Pakistan is disintegrating; the law and order situation has broken down to the point where the government is unable to control events.

The deteriorating law and order situation has revived debate about the refugees. Those who want them sent back argue that the Taliban now have the situation under control in Afghanistan. The refugees are from areas where there is no fighting and people’s life and property are safe. Based on this argument, they say that the refugees have no excuse for not going back to Afghanistan.

Media reports in Pakistan say that the government has asked the relevant agencies to prepare lists of those Afghans who are not registered with the refugee commissionerate, have purchased properties or have started their own businesses in Pakistan. According to these reports, Islamabad plans to start the repatriation process after talks with the Taliban representatives.

How credible these reports are, however, must be viewed against the backdrop of past promises. People in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan - two provinces most affected by the refugee problem - have been most vocal in demanding their return. In both provinces, police officials blame the refugees for the rising crime wave. In the NWFP, the ongoing flour crisis is also linked to Afghanistan. Part of the province’s wheat and flour quota is smuggled to Afghanistan where there is an acute food shortage.

But repatriation of the Afghan refugees, far from solving the province’s wheat and flour crisis will, in fact, exacerbate it as the demand in Afghanistan will grow. Additionally, the Taliban’s mistreatment of United Nations personnel and World Food Programme workers has also complicated the situation there. Countries donating money or goods for Afghanistan have been reluctant in view of the Taliban’s attitude and the lack of safety for aid workers.

The Baluchistan chief minister is on record as saying that criminal activities in his province have increased due to the presence of the refugees. In December, he visited Qandahar to discuss the issue with Mulla Omar, the Taliban chief who is based there. Police officials in the NWFP have expressed similar views and want the return of the refugees as early as possible.

Other observers have questioned the veracity of allegations against the Afghan refugees saying that they are being used as scapegoats. The atrocious law and order situation in Karachi and in Punjab has nothing to do with the Afghans.

There is an area in which some Afghans are involved but it is seldom discussed: the alarming rise in prostitution in Peshawar. Since the fall of the Najibullah regime in April 1992, many undesirable elements from Kabul relocated to Peshawar. They have established centres in the provincial capital where women are available for all-night parties. Officials from Peshawar as well as Islamabad are frequent visitors to these events in the ‘Islamic’ Republic of Pakistan.

This explains why the move to repatriate Afghan refugees is not taken seriously. In the past, the refugees were a good source of income since there were various UN aid programmes to look after the refugees. The aid money dried up long ago but many officials now have other ‘interests’ which prevents them tackling the refugee problem in a realistic manner.

According to the NWFP chief minister, Sardar Mahtab, there are 1.4 million refugees in the province, of whom at least 200,000 are not registered with the relevant authorities. Many were financially well off and did not to register, according to the chief minister. These people have either rented or even bought palatial homes in such localities as Hayatabad and University Town.

What the chief minister did not say was that some of these ‘palatial homes’ are used for undesirable activities at which many of his own officials are frequent visitors. Pious, law-abiding citizens are most disturbed by such activities.

Muslimedia: Feb.1-15, 1999

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