Close to home

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is becoming impatient with its Afghan guests

Close to home
She was called the Mona Lisa of the Afghan war after her 1984 portrait appeared on the cover of the June 1985 issue of the National Geographic Magazine. Many knew her only as the ‘Afghan Girl’ since they didn’t know the real name of Sharbat Gula whose picture had become one of the most popular all over the world. She made headlines again in 2002 when Steve McCurry, the National Geographic photographer, found her in Afghanistan and took a new picture of the blue-burqa clad woman holding her photograph from 18 years ago. Last week, she made headlines yet again, after she was found enrolled as Sharbat Bibi with the National Database and Registration Authority of Pakistan, as a native of Nauthia Qadeem locality of urban Peshawar. She and her two sons got their Pakistani national identity cards last year.

As NADRA officials face suspension and inquiry, analysts say it is no secret that she is not the only Afghan who has a Pakitani identity card.

For more than three decades, Pakistan has been a second home to millions of Afghan refugees. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled their country amidst a war between the Soviet forces and the Mujahedeen to arrive in Pakistan, where they were treated as guests rather than as refugees.

Instead of living in camps, they own houses, run their own businesses, avail health, education and communication facilities, and have private and government jobs.

But after a decade of violence in Pakistan, things are changing. On a number of occasions, Afghan nationals or refugees were found involved in terrorist attacks and crime, often fleeing to Afghanistan where they cannot be caught. With very little ways of tracing them, the police began to insist that they either stay inside refuge camps or register with the government if they want to continue to live in other parts of the country.
"I have never been to Afghanistan and I don't want to"

In many cases, it may be too late. Recent reports suggest tens of thousands of Afghan refugees now have Pakistani identity cards. They have never seen their homeland and see themselves as Pakistanis. But there has been no legislation to either allow them to become Pakistani nationals, or ensure that they maintain their status as refugees.

“There are 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees who, under an agreement, can stay in Pakistan until the end of 2015,” said Duniya Aslam Khan, the spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Pakistan. The UNHCR had no official figures for those who had not registered, she said.

Some government agencies estimate they may be around one million in number. That makes the total number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan 2.5 million. Most of the illegal Afghan immigrants are labourers and small vendors who do not see a future in their own country despite claims that the US led forces to have restored peace in large parts of Afghanistan.

“I was born here. I have never been to Afghanistan and I don’t want to,” says Yasin Khan, a fruit seller in Peshawar. “There must be some system under which hundreds of thousands like me can stay in Peshawar.” He has not registered as a refugee and does not see why he should. Tens of thousands of illiterate Afghans like him believe they have all the right to live in Peshawar, not realizing the complexities of international law and the need for a nationality and travel documents. Others are afraid getting registered could mean having to go back home.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak says that will not be the case. “The registered refugees should not worry. They will not be forced to go back,” he told a meeting in Peshawar recently. “The crackdown is only against illegal and unregistered Afghans, who too will be allowed to stay if they register.”

The same day, the governor of the province, Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan Abbasi, asked international groups to accelerate efforts for a respectable return of Afghans back to their home country.

An Afghan refugee girl tends to her brother in front of their mud home in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad
An Afghan refugee girl tends to her brother in front of their mud home in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad

The Awami National Party wants voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees, and not a forced expulsion. “Our government should work out a plan with the Afghan government and UNHCR for their voluntary and sustainable repatriation,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a senior leader of the ANP. “Pushing them out isn’t the solution. Throwing them out of Pakistan by force is a violation of international conventions. They were forced to take refuge because of war.”

But as a nationwide crackdown against terrorism gains momentum, security agencies are not happy with Afghan refugees, many of whom are believed to be involved in terrorism, extortion, kidnapping, street crime, target killings and other criminal activities. The provincial police force blames the problem on improper border management, and believe many Afghans living in Pakistan are not longtime refugees but recent visitors without travel documents. According to a senior police official, hardly 500 of around 20,000 people who cross the Torkham border every day have valid documents.

Security officials allege that most of the terrorist attacks being carried out in the country are planned across the border in Afghanistan and executed either by the Afghans or those Pakistani militants who live across the border.

There are also concerns about their rising influence in the country. They own property in Peshawar’s affluent areas, and many have become imams of local mosques and seminaries. In a recent crackdown, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government identified 294 Afghan prayer leaders all over the province, of which 153 live in Peshawar. Commissioners and regional police officers were told to expel them immediately. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police have also started a crackdown against Afghans residing illegally in the province. They are arrested under 14, Foreign Act, and deported through the Torkham border. Many return the very next day. Of the 2,500 illegal Afghan visitors arrested in the last two months, many were clerics at mosques or teachers or students at religious seminaries.

Some Pakistanis believe the Afghans should return regardless of their legal status. “Legal or illegal is not the issue,” says Sajjadul Haq Bacha, a resident of the affluent Hayatabad township in Peshawar where thousands of Afghans own large houses. “Those involved in crime and terrorism must be dealt with an iron hand, and the rest should be facilitated to go back to their country now. We have been hosting them for 35 years.”