Safeguarding Human Security amidst Climate-Induced Displacement and Afghan Refugee Influx in Pakistan

Since the end of the Cold War, the concept of security has evolved, challenging traditional realist assumptions. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) introduced the idea of “human security”, which shifted the focus from narrow state-centric views to a broader approach that prioritises individuals. This paradigm prioritises safeguarding people from both long-term risks, such as famine and repression, and unexpected disruptions in daily life. Despite criticism from traditional national security perspectives, the UN Commission on Human Security’s definition emphasises the interconnectedness of security, rights, and development. This approach highlights individual protection and empowerment and challenges the traditional notion of territory and sovereignty, underscoring shared responsibility for human wellbeing. The current dual displacement pressure exemplified by Afghan refugees and climate-induced out-migration in Pakistan underscores the relevance of the human security paradigm for the country.

Pakistan is identified as one of the top ten countries most susceptible to climate change, leading to a rise in displacement. According to a report by ActionAid, Bread for the World, and the Climate Action Network-South Asia (CANSA), Pakistan is facing a serious problem of climate migration. Even with aggressive efforts to reduce emissions, it is predicted that the number of climate migrants in Pakistan will exceed 600,000 by 2030 and could reach closer to one million without urgent action. This means that communities are forced to relocate in search of more sustainable living conditions.

The current dual displacement pressure exemplified by Afghan refugees and climate-induced out-migration in Pakistan underscores the relevance of the human security paradigm for the country.

Adding to the strain on existing resources and infrastructure is the concentration of Afghan migrants in urban areas that endangers both the local people and the migrants themselves. Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, approximately 1,600,000 Afghans have sought safety in neighbouring Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan, with more than 70% of those seeking sanctuary being women and children. According to October data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 3,700,000 Afghans reside in Pakistan, with just 1,330,000 recognised as refugees.

Karachi is a prime example of a Pakistani city that hosts a large number of Afghan migrants due to the economic opportunities it offers while also dealing with the challenges of climate-induced migration into urban areas. On the other hand, northern areas of Pakistan, such as Chitral and Gilgit, are struggling with the out-migration of their indigenous communities. These regions, known for their stunning landscapes, are experiencing changes in climate patterns that are directly impacting the traditional livelihoods of local communities. This leads to a cycle of displacement that can threaten the stability and human security of these regions.

For instance, historic flooding in Pakistan in 2022 affected approximately 8 million people who were at the mercy of continuous monsoon rains and swollen streams. As floodwaters rose and engulfed communities, people sought safety wherever they could, such as in tent cities or on roadsides. Nearly six million people from flood-affected areas, the majority of whom were in Sindh and Balochistan provinces, found refuge in relief camps, with at least fifty thousand moving to Karachi.

Afghan migrants, who are frequently relocated within Pakistan owing to environmental conditions such as droughts and floods, exacerbate the already-existing urbanisation difficulties. The influx of Afghan refugees accounts for more than 95% of the total refugee population in Pakistan and is intertwined with the security situation. This scenario compounds the impact of the climate-induced movement. The increase in militant violence in Pakistan, particularly in the border provinces with Afghanistan, combined with the complex dynamics of displacement in the country, offers a multi-layered danger to human security. Therefore, it requires a comprehensive approach that tackles the geopolitical conflicts and environmental factors contributing to Pakistan’s current predicament.

Besides, the demand for resources, insufficient housing, and rivalry for jobs create a volatile environment, affecting locals’ and migrants’ human security. These difficulties are made worse by the sociopolitical issues surrounding the status of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. While Pakistan has generously hosted millions of Afghan refugees for decades, the influx of illegal migrants has added strain to resources and infrastructure. The government has faced criticism for its deportation of undocumented Afghans, with concerns raised about the human rights implications. This complex issue requires a nuanced approach that balances national security concerns with humanitarian considerations.

Nevertheless, to ensure the human security of its people from climate disasters, the country’s National Climate Change Policy, amended in 2021, emphasises adaptation and mitigation, with a strong emphasis on nature-based solutions. Initiatives such as the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme, the Urban Forest Project, the Clean Green Pakistan Movement, Protected Areas and National Park Initiatives, and the Ecosystem Restoration Initiative (ESRI) have been implemented in this regard. The former Prime Minister Imran Khan also set the course for decarbonising the country’s economy by launching the first-ever Green Bond to fund environmentally beneficial projects. Most recently, due to Pakistan’s aggressive efforts, this year’s edition of the Conference of Parties (COP28) began with the establishment of the first Loss and Damage Fund.

However, Pakistan’s newly authorised National Adaptation Plan (NAP) to address climate challenges has been criticised for lacking tangible actions and depending primarily on foreign contributions without defined financing channels. While it fulfils the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) responsibilities, some commentators see it as more of a formality than a genuine move forward. Despite the vision of a climate-resilient Pakistan, the plan seems to be a repetition of previous policies rather than representing any real progress.

In conclusion, the various issues of displacement, livelihood disruptions and the protection of fundamental freedoms highlight the need for a holistic and people-centred approach to address the complex dynamics of migration. The intertwining of geopolitical crises and climate-induced migration highlights the crucial need for a comprehensive approach to human security. To handle these problems, Pakistan needs a comprehensive strategy recognising the linked nature of displacement, regional conflicts, and environmental factors. By taking this line of action, Pakistan may strive to maintain stability, build resilience, and ensure the well-being of its people in the face of these complex and interconnected challenges.

Sanila Ibrahim

Sanila Ibrahim is a Peace and Conflict Studies graduate from the National University of Modern Languages (NUML) Islamabad. Her research interests include Non-Traditional Security Threats and Peace Building. She is a Research Intern at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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