A humanitarian catastrophe is in the making as Pakistan has started preparing for the forced deportation of nearly 1.5 million Afghan refugees.
According to official Pakistani estimates there are nearly 4 million Afghanistan refugees in Pakistan out of whom 1.7 million do not have the necessary documents. Early in October the Pakistani government asked all foreigners without the necessary documents, for practical purposes mainly these 1.7 million Afghan refugees, to leave Pakistan by November 1. A little less than 200,000 actually left by November 1, while the remaining 1.5 million face the risk of forced deportation.
Many of these so-called undocumented refugees were born or brought up in Pakistan and have nowhere else to go. Many are members of families in the case of whom other members may have documents. This can therefore involve forced break-up of families or separation of one family member from another, or even separation of a mother from her children. Several refugees are here precisely because they were escaping from some threat or the other. There are girls studying or women working who do not want to lose their education and jobs. In fact livelihoods and education for everyone, women or men, boys or girls, will become very uncertain for at least a considerable time once they leave or are deported.
What is more, very little time has been given to those who have been asked to leave. When you are asked to hurriedly leave within a month how can you get a fair price for any small property you may have acquired or any small business you may have set up with years of toil and savings. Some reports say that certain restrictions have also been placed on what the refugees can carry with them. There have been reports of the houses and colonies of several of these refugees being bulldozed. Several media reports have quoted uprooted people as saying that even those who have the relevant documents are also being asked to go. Further there is the question–what exactly is the document that government authorities will accept for allowing them to remain in Pakistan? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has issued papers to those refugees whose applications for settlement in various countries are being processed and these are supposed to be accepted as valid documents, but quite frequently are not accepted, several people have complained.
What is more, winter is approaching and in the harsh winter of Afghanistan, sending so many homeless people to a country which is already in the middle of a very serious humanitarian crisis is just like inviting a humanitarian catastrophe that can be avoided. Several people are travelling in open trucks. What happens if there are heavy rains?
The Afghanistan government has asked the Pakistan government to stop any forced deportation. At the same time it has started making some arrangements for those who have already started entering the country, or are likely to come soon or be deported soon. However it will be very difficult to cope with such a scale of forced deportation or reverse migration. In a country where the majority of people lack adequate food or access to other basic needs, the sudden arrival of so many people, many of them with no homes here and nowhere to go to, is certain to create a catastrophic situation which can be avoided.
Most of those who have been asked to leave suddenly are people who were working hard to provide important or even essential services to society. Pakistani officials have stated that many of those being deported were involved in violence and crime, but this is just a suspicion being voiced without being backed by any solid evidence that the incidence of crime reported among deported or evicted people is any higher than the crime and violence rate for the average population. Also it is strange to see the Pakistani government forcibly pushing out so many people in very adverse conditions despite itself having a known record for sheltering so many terrorists.
In fact Pakistan played a major role in creating conditions which generated so many refugees. To first oust the communist regime of Afghanistan and then the Soviet army which came to rescue and support this regime, the USA and its CIA used Pakistan, with the help of Saudi money, to collect and arm Islamic fundamentalist militants from all over the world. In the next phase, the Taliban militants were groomed in Pakistan by providing fundamentalist, sectarian and military education and training. The opium trafficking and its processing into heroin on Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas to finance militancy all involved the support of Pakistani military and intelligence agencies. Hence if so many refugees poured out of Afghanistan and drug trafficking increased, Pakistan shares the blame for creating those conditions. In addition it has received a lot of money and weapons from Saudi Arabia and the USA for all these activities, including the support of refugees. On the other hand, the majority of the Afghan refugees have toiled as workers contributing to Pakistani economy and society. It is thus highly unjust on the part of the Pakistani authorities to unilaterally and suddenly take an arbitrary decision to expel or deport so many refugees within such a short time span.
Afghanistan has been suffering from adverse weather conditions and on top of this there has been a spate of earthquakes too. In such conditions to push nearly 1.7 million people into Afghanistan is highly unjust. Several leading UN agencies and human rights organizations have condemned this decision and asked the Pakistani government to reconsider this. Following this advice Pakistan should stop all forced deportation immediately. Countries which carry weight with the Pakistani government such as the USA, China and Saudi Arabia should also ask the Pakistani government to take back this decision. In addition the USA should immediately return the frozen funds of Afghanistan valued at nearly 7 billion dollars and its close allies should also do so.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, A Day in 2071 and When the Two Streams Met.