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Scapegoating Afghan refugees?

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Khadim Hussain
The issue of integration and repatriation of refugees has been a subject ofhot debate around the globe for quite some time. More and more people around the world have started realising the fact that the scars in the hearts of refugee families due to leaving their hearths and homes in the midst of natural or human-made disasters must be healed. Besides Refugees Conventions and Protocols, the Amnesty International calls for “Refugees must not be forced to return to a country where they are at risk of human rights abuses. They must be resettled when they are in a vulnerable situation. They must not be discriminatedagainst. They must have access to work, be housed and be educated. They must be allowed to move freely, and keep their own identity and travel documents.” The case of Afghan Refugees in Pakistan, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, is unique in several ways. The first and foremost is that the Afghans were forced to leave their homeland in the last years of the 1970s and the beginning of 1980s. Their camps were made breeding grounds for creating ‘mujahedeen’. The Gulf States, the USA and Europe generously supported the process for turning ‘muhajireen’ (refugees) into ‘mujahedeen’ (fighters). When the era of Mujahedeen came to an end, Pakistan ostensibly supported the emergence of the ‘Taliban’. The Afghan state was literally dissolved during that period. When Taliban oligarchy was eliminated after 9/11, their leadership regrouped in different parts of Pakistan under the nose of the Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies. Thousands of Afghan families have been living mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan comfortably for generations due to their ethnic affinity with the inhabitantsof these two provinces. Instead of integration, the federal and provincial governments of Pakistan usually emphasise on repatriation. The majority of the Afghans have been working as entrepreneurs in the local markets. Their productivity has been known to have contributed to the local markets. In return, the provincial and federal governments of Pakistan mostly remained reluctant even to provide them with the minimum internationally recognised rights. Recently, there has been a renewed demand by some in Pakistan, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for the immediate repatriation of the Afghan Refugees. One observes some patterns of constructing a narrative of hostility against the Afghan refugees for their immediate repatriationon both governmental and societal levels. The stereotypes about Afghans kidnapping and using children for illicit trade have been widely heard recently through word of mouth in markets and during gatherings in cultural ceremonies in the urban and semi-urban areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The stereotypes have become so widespread that one sometimes even hears them from those who are considered sane and educated.

This is another matter that nobody asks for any evidence hence not a single shred of evidence has so far been presented to this effect. This seems to be a planned and well-orchestrated effort to create a schism between the local population and Afghan refugees by constructing a narrative of hostility against a vulnerable and marginalised section.

The second pattern that is observed is the usual claim by all and sundry on social and mainstream media is that the Afghan refugees have a major role in criminality in the towns and urban centres. Hence it is assumed that once the Afghan refugees leave for Afghanistan, there will be drastic fall in the crime rate in Pakistan in general and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in particular.

On the contrary, an editorial of Jan 2017 by a well-known contemporary daily has presented some figures of involvement of Afghan refugees in criminality in Pakistan. The data collected through Right to Information Act from the Directorate of Prosecution and Police Department indicates that “from 2014 to September 2016, of the 10,549 cases put up in court, a negligible 134 cases involved Afghan refugees.” This makes only one percent involvement of the Afghan refugees in criminality on the soil of Pakistan.

The third pattern that is seen is blaming Afghan refugees for the increase in terrorist attacks in Pakistan recently. A cursory look at the elements involved in the recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan shows that Afghan refugees were involved in none of the recent attacks. Not even one percent of Afghan refugees have been convicted of terrorism in Pakistan in the past ten years.

The question that arises is: who are the people involved in the hounding and harassment of Afghan refugees in Pakistan in general and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in particular? A related question is why are the Afghan refugees hounded and harassed by the governmental law enforcement agencies.

There are numerous reports in mainstream and local media that “as the drive to send Afghan nationals packing for home intensifies, locals in KP are more interested in the properties these refugees leave behind. Shops and houses are being sold at throwaway prices, whetting the appetites of those out for a bargain.” The land mafia and the small class of bargainers had been outclassed by the Afghan refugees in entrepreneurship in the local market. They got an opportunity to make a comeback in the capital-starvedlocal market when the government pushed for the immediate return of the Afghan refugees. The urgency by the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to force the immediate return of the Afghan Refugees was stunning even for those who supported the repatriation of the Afghan refugees. In some cases, hundreds of families of refugees were given only 36 hours deadline to leave the locality.

A section of the security establishment of Pakistan has traditionally used two tactics to pressurise the government of Afghanistan. The first tactic is to put hurdles in transit trade and close the borders. The second tactic is to hound, harass and force the Afghan refugees to return to their war-torn country where they have to start their life from scratch. This sometimes creates a humanitarian crisis that was recently observed during the closure of checkpointsat the Durand Line.

These tactics have not only created wide gulf of mistrust between the two neighbouring countries but have also developed widespread hostility among the Afghans for Pakistan.

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