Afghanistan, Pakistan, UN, Afghan Refugee

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 changed Pakistan in many ways. Perhaps the most significant effect was the massive influx of Afghan nationals into the state of Pakistan. The first wave of Afghan refugees to Pakistan began during the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the late 1970s. By the end of 2001, there were over four million Afghans residing in Pakistan. While writing on the impact of Afghan refugees on Pakistan, there are many views which are often at contrast with each other, and can be divided into several domains which are as follows:


It can be stated that the greatest impact that Afghan refugees have had has been in the realm of security. The dominant opinion is that they negative influenced the security of Pakistan. Afghan refugees have been asserted to be behind the rise of heroin culture, drug problems and Kalashnikov culture (weaponisation of Pakistani society). It is often contended that when the Afghans migrated to Pakistan, they brought with themselves the ills of Afghan society namely drugs and weapons.

However, there are counter claims to these assertions. There are those who believe that while both these security threats followed the Afghan refugees, it was not caused by them. The weaponisation of society was caused by influx of weapons from the state backed militants who were fighting the Soviet-Afghan war. Likewise, the drugs problem was the result of the efforts engineered to use the narcotics trade as a means to sustain the anti-Soviet efforts in Afghanistan. In 1980s as a result of Soviet-Afghan war, Pakistan became a part of large scale opium production supply chain. 800 tons of opium was produced per year, and 70% heroin supply came from Pakistan to international markets. The trio of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, replaced the golden triangle of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.

Some members of government institutions were also found involved in this illicit activity of drug trafficking. In 1983, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Akhtar Abdur Rehman fired the entire staffers of ISI in Quetta because of their collusion with drug trade and the sale of weaponry destined for the Mujahideen. In 1986, Major Zaheeruddin, and two months later, Lieutenant Khalil-ur-Rehman was arrested for carrying 220kg of heroin from Peshawar to Karachi. It was not until 1992 that a rigorous campaign was launched to cleanse Pakistan of drugs and the efforts were successful.

The most recent impact keenly felt by Pakistan has been militancy. Afghan refugees based in Pakistan are often proclaimed to be terrorists’ collaborators and foreign agents committing acts of terror on Pakistani soil. Proponents of such claims point to the number of Afghan nationals often caught in such acts as proof.

However, opponents contend that such claims are often blown out of proportion. Such voices stress that most of the terrorist groups waging war against Pakistan consists of locals. At times, undue focus is shifted onto Afghan to divert attention from the states’ role in cultivating proxies who have gone rogue.


Economy is another sector that comes under the purview. It is emphasized that the influx of more than 3 million Afghan left a burden too heavy to be borne by the Pakistan’s economy.

In addition, the Afghan refugees are considered to be engaged in smuggling that makes Pakistan’s black economy grow at the expense of its white economy. Also, they are prepared to work at cheaper rates than the locals, thus they deprive many from their jobs.

However, there is a contrasting view that contends refugees are often a boon rather than a bane for a state’s economy. Cheaper labour rates help in the establishment of many industrial units thus driving up growth. The reason Pakistan has been unable to take benefit has been due to other factors such as endemic corruption, weak laws, and low investment. On the topic of smuggling, such voices assert that while it is true that some Pakistan based Afghan are involved but undue focus is shifted on them in order to save high level government officials indulging in such activities.

According to a local Urdu newspaper in Pakistan, the Afghan refugees pour 34 billion Pakistani rupees ($325 million) into Pakistan’s economy annually. Most of these are remittances from the Afghan nationals who work abroad and send back their earnings to their families residing in Pakistan. In a CIA report of 1984, the economic impact from the migration of Afghan refugees on Pakistan was not judged too severe, ranging to about 180 million dollars, or 2% of the budget at that time.

Most of the Afghan are restricted to blue collar jobs while others with resources go into business and most of the vacancies they fill in Pakistan are of migrants who had gone to the Gulf. This is how they positively fill the labour gap in the economy. Furthermore, the UNHCR and other donors give about $150 million annually to the Pakistani government for the upkeep of Afghan refugees.


Politics has also been affected by the Afghan refugee conundrum. Pakistan’s internal politics got affected as the incoming of Afghan, sharing the same ethnicity as the Pakistani Pakhtuns, led to the flaring of sub nationalist sentiments across Southern Pakistan. Most of this was blamed on the economic competition caused due to the permeation of Pakhtuns into the Non Pakhtun areas.

However, those who oppose this view consider the Afghan refugees as a minor factor in the whole equation. The real factors are state policies, mis-governance, underdevelopment, and ensuing sense of deprivation. Karachi is a city that is ascertained to have been the most affected by the Afghan refugees.

A closer look points to other factors too. Karachi, as a multicultural city was already facing waves of migration, first by Urdu speaking migrants from the India in the 50s, and later on the Pakistani Pukhtoons in the 70s. It was considered that the local Sindhis and Baloch were kept backward in order for the other sub ethnicities to take advantage of the strategic position of Pakistan’s primary port. During that time, a prolific ideologue G.M. Syed, and populist leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto infused political vigour in the Sindhi community. It was after the overthrow of Bhutto’s government that the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), a political party championing the rights of Urdu speaking community stepped into the fray and engaged itself in a gang war with the Sindhi dominant Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP).

The sub nationalist forces at play in Sindh also had a jaundiced view of the Pukhtoons residing in Karachi due to their impact on the vote bank of respective parties. That is why the MQM engaged in violent skirmishes with the Pukhtoon Awami National Party (ANP) from 2008-13 and the internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing a counter insurgency operation in Swat were barred from entering Sindh by the provincial PPP government. The label of Afghan refugee was used to delegitimize the Pukhtoons present in Karachi by these forces.

Foreign Policy

Externally, the large presence of Afghan refugees led Pakistan to become unwilling stakeholders in Afghanistan, but the critics here too argue that being neighbouring countries, the Pak-Afghan relations are already intertwined with the issue like Durand Line which confront the two states. They argue that had the Afghan refugees not existed, the Pak-Afghan relations would have been the same.

Tumult in Pak Afghan relations started when Pakistan was born in 1947. Afghanistan was the last neighbouring state to recognise Pakistan and started to claim Pakistan’s North West region as its own. It backed up its rhetoric through the pulsations in the form of Bacha Khan, a venerated Pukhtoon nationalist leader, as well as militants such as the Faqir of Ipi, and the Pakhtoon Zalmi.

Pakistan largely tolerated Afghan interference until 1974, when the first recorded instance of the support given by the Bhutto administration to the detractors of the government in Kabul surfaced. After the Soviet intervention and the indirect American involvement, Pakistan’s efforts were strengthened, and it averted a two front war scenario.

After the Soviet withdrawal and Afghanistan’s descent into chaos, Pakistan sought ways to pacify the country. It found its panacea in the form of the Taliban who emerged as a response to the brutal warlords running rampant over the country. With Pakistan’s support, the Taliban soon limited the warlords to small enclaves, and returned the nation to a semblance of law and order.

Despite that, the global conflict again returned to Afghanistan after the US led invasion in 2001. The US invasion opened up the country again to Indian hegemonic designs and violent extremism whose affect was soon felt by Pakistan. Since then both Pakistan and Afghanistan have been caught up in a deadly embrace of militancy and paranoia in which the Afghan refugees have become unwilling pawns.


In the end, it can be concluded that there are differing views on the presence of Afghan refugees in Pakistan as most are coloured by political and social bias. The truth can be asserted to be in the middle of the both sides. While both sides do state parts and pieces of the truth, they largely tell those parts which suit their narrative.

It can be opined that while the Afghan refugees came as foreigners to the state of Pakistan, their stay has turned them into a part of the social fabric of the nation. While there is a stark need to tackle the miscreant elements that take advantage of the Afghan refugees, there is also a stark need to be mindful of the status of the refugees themselves.

Jawad Falak

is an M. Phil scholar in the discipline of International Relations at the NDU.

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