Fears Of A Humanitarian Catastrophe As Deportees Head Into Freezing Uncertainty Of Afghanistan

In Pakistan, refugees with expired POR cards fear they will be deported; on the other hand, many Afghan men who possess valid registration documents are heading back to accompany their unregistered female family members

Fears Of A Humanitarian Catastrophe As Deportees Head Into Freezing Uncertainty Of Afghanistan

"I was born in Pakistan. I do not know where Kunduz is."

These were the comments of a 16-year-old Afghan-origin girl who was, until recently, camped at Torkham, Pakistan's border with Pakistan. She was worried about completing her education as she prepared to cross the border into Afghanistan in the middle of a freezing winter. 

The girl, who spoke to The Friday Times via telephone from the border between the two neighbouring countries, said her great-grandfather hailed from Kunduz in Afghanistan. He came to Pakistan with his family during the war with the Soviet Union and then the one with the US. But she was born and raised in Pakistan and has no idea what Kunduz is like.

"Now, they are sending us to Kunduz in this freezing weather, with just Rs50,000 in our pockets. I don’t know how the hell they will deal with us," she said, adding that her biggest concern was whether she could continue her education.

The Afghan-origin girl The Friday Times spoke to was not alone in this situation. Thousands of other Afghan women and children have been experiencing a similar crisis since Pakistan started deporting unregistered migrants in November.

What makes matters worse is that even though some of the settlements they hail from are in a dilapidated condition, they still fear the unknown awaiting them in Afghanistan.

Disparity in access for refugee women 

In the southern megalopolis of Karachi, a large number of Afghan refugees are settled in camps set up by the government during Afghanistan's wars with the Soviet Union and the USA. 

One of the largest refugee camps, locally referred to as Afghan Basti (Afghan Settlement), is a melting pot of rival ethnicities from Afghanistan, including Turks, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Pashtuns. What unites them, however, is the fact that they all fled conflict to find a safe space to live and raise their families.

The streets of the Afghan Basti are inundated with raw sewage; children clamber up and down it barefoot while the women, clad in traditional Afghan burqas, gingerly make their way through the winding, unpaved tracks.

Even by Karachi's standards, this locality would be classified as the worst of the slums.

Since the government started its programme to deport unregistered and illegal migrants, most people who did not have valid residential permits have left this settlement. 

While many residents of the refugee camp possess Proof of Residence (POR) cards, some of their cards have expired. They live in a legal limbo where the state has not renewed their registration, and they fear the expiration of registration qualifies them for deportation.

They have begged for the government to re-register them, believing that if they are registered, the state will not throw them out of Pakistan.

The state claims that the presence of hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants was sapping the meagre resources of the country. But the torn clothes and broken shoes of the residents of the [Afghan Basti] narrate a story quite different from the state's narrative.

The government, however, has started registering refugees through biometric systems for those with ACC and POR cards so that they can be deported after December 2023.

Baba Jan, a Tajik resident of the Afghan Basti, told The Friday Times that the government was not renewing their POR cards. 

"We live in constant fear," he said, adding that despite purchasing property worth millions of rupees, he does not feel he has any shelter in Pakistan. 

Another Tajik man, Samiuddin, explained in fluent Sindhi that his POR card had expired and that he was afraid he would be sent to Afghanistan by the government.

"I am more fluent in Sindhi than my mother tongue," he said, adding that it was the same for his family.

"Just tell me, what should I do when I get to Afghanistan?"

Many Pashtun women of Afghan origins who have been living in Pakistan for years did not obtain registration cards owing to traditional barriers. Some Afghans believe that in their culture, women should not venture outdoors unaccompanied, nor do they need an education. But when the government started sending them back to Afghanistan, it forced their men to follow them, even if they had been registered. 

A humanitarian crisis

Observers, monitors and activists have noted that the Afghan policy put into effect on November 1 is creating a new humanitarian crisis.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Council Member Mehnaz Rehman, while talking to The Friday Times, discussed the strain on Pakistan's resources due to its Afghan policy and expected outcomes. She called for viewing the situation as a humanitarian crisis.

Rehman suggested chalking out mechanisms to register Afghan refugees, emphasising the need to ask uncomfortable questions about who was truly responsible for consuming funds and resources received from international communities in the name of Afghan refugees.

Activist and lawyer Muniza Kakar said that in every conflict, women and children are the primary victims. 

She added that the health needs of women are often ignored in areas ravaged by conflict. While the war-wounded are given priority when it comes to healthcare, the needs of women, particularly the needs of pregnant mothers and their children, are given scant attention.

Kakar said that even though refugees have lived in refugee camps in Pakistan for years, some even decades, the conditions of the camps are quite poor and reflect the plight of the Afghans living there.

Journalist Arshad Yousafzai stated that, as in all war-torn societies, women suffer disproportionately. As thousands of refugees, including women and children, are sent to Afghanistan, he said that the western neighbour is still ranked as the worst place in the world to be a woman. Despite efforts by the Afghan government and international donors to educate girls, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school, while 87% of Afghan women are illiterate. Another 70%-80% face forced marriages, many before the age of 16.

He noted Afghan women who have assimilated within Pakistani society, received education here, and established relationships within and outside the community have little to no future in Afghanistan.

The author is a Karachi-based reporter.