Is Pakistan Ready for Another Afghan Refugee Crisis

Amidst the Afghan turmoil, Pakistan is expected to receive the largest share of refugees fleeing the war-torn country. The fall of Kabul to the Taliban has initiated another wave of Afghan refugees looking for shelter and rescue from violence and terror. The official estimation shows that up to 700,000 Afghan refugees could enter Pakistan in the upcoming months. Pakistan is already hosting more than 1.5 million registered and over 1 million unregistered Afghans. A further influx of Afghan refugees could put more burden on the already shattered economy of Pakistan.

The Taliban takeover has resulted in a crackdown against the former Afghan government’s allies and supporters. Over the last month, almost 124,000 people, including an overwhelming number of Afghans, have been evacuated by the American coalition forces. Most of the evacuees were supporting or working for foreign missions in Afghanistan. However, a large number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) are struggling to migrate as they foresee persecution by the Taliban. As a result, a large portion of these IDPs is expected to migrate to Pakistan.

Over the last four decades, Pakistan has hosted several waves of Afghan refugees fleeing from wars. The first wave of Afghan refugees began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It is estimated that over four million Afghans fled the violence committed by the Soviet forces and the Afghan communist government. The clashes between the communist government and the Mujahideen resistance groups compelled millions of Afghans to seek shelter in Pakistan. The second wave of Afghan refugees began in the 1990s with the collapse of the Afghan government and the rise of the Taliban. The subsequent formation of the Islamic Emirate in 1996 by the Taliban led to another wave of migration, as many feared mass persecutions by the Taliban.

Pakistan is already hosting more than 1.5 million registered and over 1 million unregistered Afghans. A further influx of Afghan refugees could put more burden on the already shattered economy of Pakistan.

The third wave of Afghan refugees was recorded when the US-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001.  This compelled thousands of Afghans to flee violence and growing insecurity. Currently, we are experiencing the fourth wave that resulted after the fall of Ashraf Ghani’s government on 15 August 2021. It is feared that the number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan can grow further as thousands are waiting to flee Afghanistan. Reportedly, Pakistan is already hosting the second-largest refugee population of almost three million Afghans. Most of the Afghan refugees are settled in Peshawar, Quetta, and Karachi.

Afghan refugees have caused several economic and social challenges for Pakistan, among which the direst problem is the security threat and the rise of militancy. The terrorist outfits usually enter Pakistan pretending to be refugees. The majority of militant attacks in Pakistan are traced back to Afghan refugee camps. Keeping in mind the regional security and the rise of cross-border terrorist attacks, Pakistan initiated fencing along the Durand line. The fencing aims to stop cross-border terrorism and to halt human trafficking across the Durand Line. According to a report, 90% of fencing work along the 2,611 km long Durand Line has been completed. The border fencing along the Durand Line is likely to stop and regulate the upcoming refugee influx.

According to officials, Pakistan is considering the Iranian model to deal with this refugee crisis. To stop the penetration of refugees in the mainland, the Iranian government settled the Afghan refugees alongside the border. This model helped Iran to prevent the penetration of Afghan refugees into Iranian population. Unlike Iran, Pakistan allowed Afghan immigrants to settle on the mainland and merge with its population. This policy led to unchecked penetration of the refugees into urban centres. However, to tackle the current wave of Afghan immigrants, Pakistan is trying to facilitate Afghans in the border area and stop their influx into the cities.

As Afghanistan faces a major humanitarian crisis, the international community and the neighbouring states must reach out to the poor and needy in Afghanistan. They should provide help, i.e., food and shelter, to the internally displaced Afghans. Meanwhile, the international community must also ensure the safety of Afghan officials and media personnel who are under dire threats while putting the minimum burden on Pakistan. Pakistan has received its share of Afghan refugees, and now it is time for the international community to take responsibility.

Pakistan should follow the Iranian fencing model and build refugee camps in the border area, keeping the refugees away from the mainland. This policy can help alleviate the threat of cross-border terrorism and stop the penetration of Afghan refugees into major cities. Amidst the international pressure to accept more and more Afghan refugees, Pakistan must not compromise on its security and the threat of cross-border terrorism. Terrorist outfits can easily penetrate into Pakistan while pretending to be Afghan refugees. Meanwhile, Pakistan is also not economically capable of welcoming another influx of refugees. Pakistan is facing a serious economic crisis, putting more burden in the shape of refugees can exacerbate the economic situation. Helping the needy Afghans should be the top priority of Pakistan but not at the expense of instability on the territory of Pakistan.

Abdul Rehman

The author has done MS in International Relations from Corvinus University of Budapest and a former Research Assistant at CSCR.

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