Pakistan is home to the third largest population of refugees. As of 2016, 1.6 million refugees reside in Pakistan, with the greater chunk of them being Afghan refugees. The State Bank of Pakistan, in a report produced in the year 2016; estimated that the expenditures incurred by Pakistan amounted to an estimated $118 billion; the brunt of being involved in the U.S war against terrorism. This cost, however, is exclusive of the loss to human life and property. The greatest dilemma that this war added up to was the Afghan refugee influx in Pakistan, which had begun in 1979 during the Soviet invasion; prevailed till the Soviet exit in 1989, but experienced a great upsurge in 2011, as Pakistan experienced disastrous spill over effects of the war on terror, due to the presence of a long porous border between both states. Being a developing nation herself, experiencing bittersweet tumultuous relations with her neighbour Afghanistan, Pakistan is left with no choice but to opt for repatriation of these refugees, which, under the given circumstances has to be “voluntary” in nature, due to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR’s) concern regarding the prevalent insurgency in Afghanistan.
The final push for the repatriation of Afghan refugees was felt by Islamabad in the year 2014 when an attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, claimed the lives of 146 people, including 134 children; as armed militants mercilessly slaughtered and plundered the entire school vicinity. The Counter Terrorism Department (CTD)’s report however revealed that the attack had been planned along the Af-Pak border by proscribed outfits. Furthermore, five of the accused were arrested in Afghanistan, who, although, were militants of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), but had managed to flee across the border. This incident was termed a national tragedy and led to the beginning of a series of combing operations known as the Operation Zarb–e-Azb. Widespread angst was felt amongst the citizens of Pakistan, as once again the state writ had been tested and national security was threatened. Afghan refugees were viewed with more suspicion, which led to mass deportations, extra judicial arrests, extortion and harassment. As a result of this by the year 2015, 22000 undocumented Afghans went back to Afghanistan and around 1500 were deported by the state authorities. The need for developing a refugee policy and stricter border management policy thus, became quintessential after this incident.
Pakistan has been hosting the Afghan refugees since more than three decades, thus repatriation, no matter how quintessential, is a difficult feat to implement as well as achieve. There are second and third generation refugees, who were born in Pakistan and are currently residing in Pakistan. According to the “Jus Soli” principle stated in the Pakistan Citizenship Act, 1951, since they were born on Pakistani soil, they are entitled to Pakistani citizenship. Moreover, the Naturalization Act of 1926 also bestows upon them Pakistani citizenship, according to Section C “that he has resided in Pakistan throughout the period of twelve months immediately preceding the date of the application, and has, during the seven years immediately preceding the said period of twelve months, resided in Pakistan for a period amounting in the aggregate to not less than four years.” Yet, the conundrum remains that these Afghans continue to be termed as refugees with only 1.4 million of them registered with a Proof of Registration (POR) card. Illegal immigration across the porous border and undocumented aliens are major concerns for state authorities which keep issuing deadlines to refugees for ‘voluntary repatriation’ in the form of the expiry dates of the POR cards, which had initially been issued in the year 2007. The sixth extension in the stay of Afghan refugees expired in December 2017, which was again rejected by the Afghan settlers who apparently still need more time to wind up their matters in Pakistan. Currently the Afghan refugees have been given a 60 days extension commencing from 31st January 2018 lasting till 31st March 2018; however, the Afghan government is still striving for another year extension.
Repatriation is a causative agent in the chain of resettlement and rehabilitation. The repatriation policy of Pakistan, although being in the best of state’s interest, is being jeered upon by the international community, which fears an upcoming humanitarian crisis of the repatriation of millions of refugees back to a war torn country that still faces insurgency and turmoil. Resettlement and rehabilitation of the refugees who have lost their homes and land to the war is another cause of concern not only for Afghanistan but also the UNHCR and the global community. This mass exodus paints a very grim picture for those returning Afghanis who are termed “Pakistanis” by the inhabitants of Afghanistan, as they enter a life of further economic deprivation, destitution and unemployment in a land which is still harbouring extremist militant outfits such as the D’aish (ISIS), Al Qaeda in the Subcontinent (AQIS) and many others. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s economy is also struggling with only a 0.4% increase in the GDP in the year 2017, with a 2.6% GDP growth rate, Afghanistan is already struggling to attain long term economic growth and sustainability, despite the presence of foreign aid, the return of all its refugees will not only weigh her down more, but may also result into a phase of probable economic depression.
Thus, the repatriation policy in itself is not complete without the infusion of resettlement and rehabilitation as vital clauses for a comprehensive refugee policy, which, although is the state policy for Pakistan but needs to be formulated as a result of tri-partite dialogue between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UNHCR. Pakistan cannot turn a blind eye towards the resettlement and rehabilitation of these refugees within Afghanistan, as the 82,019 refugees repatriated between the months of January – August last year from Pakistan were formerly contributing members of the Pakistani society. They were majorly shopkeepers, labourers and/ or business men in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Balochistan regions. Thus, in an attempt to mitigate a fomenting humanitarian crisis, Pakistan needs to be hand in glove with Afghanistan and the UNHCR for the resettlement and rehabilitation of these refugees within Afghanistan. This strategy will not only stabilize the turbulent Pak – Afghan foreign relations but will also unveil a softer image of Pakistan towards the global community especially at a time when even the United States (U.S) is reluctant towards Pakistan’s mass repatriation plan. Thus the need of the hour is for Pakistan to adopt a pro-active approach and develop strategic insight into this humanitarian crisis in tow with Afghanistan and the UNHCR in order to attain stability in the region.