The Making of Another Refugee Crisis for Pakistan

On July 2, the American forces departed quietly from Bagram Air Base north of Kabul without prior notification to their Afghan allies. Many military outposts are surrendering to the group giving a green signal to the Taliban for seizing the military hardware. The Taliban are reclaiming and launching attacks on district after district. These developments only bring Afghanistan closer to a full-fledged civil war.

As per the estimate, the Afghan Taliban are now controlling a third of 421 districts and their centres in Afghanistan. More than 300 Afghan military personnel entered Tajikistan after the fighters made their advances toward the province of Badakhshan. It appears that the Taliban are now advancing with an amplified rigour, and the stalemate will not stand for long. Many analysts and policymakers question the premise of the Taliban taking control of the entire country. However, the on-ground situation with the Afghan security forces surrendering to the group tells a different tale altogether.

The possibility of Afghanistan reverting into a similar tragedy of the 1990s is somewhat understated. Arguably, the group’s operational capacity has only strengthened over the years. Another great power losing on the ground after over-stretching its resources is enough to boost the group’s morale. Importantly, while comparing the Taliban operational capacity to the 1990s, instead of outdated weaponry and ammunition, they are now seizing highly modernised and sophisticated weapons.

With each passing day, as episodes of violence multiply, the Afghans prepare to leave the country. The neighbouring countries already hosting millions of Afghan refugees cannot successfully manage another influx if the security situation deteriorates in Afghanistan. The countries that are bound to see a new influx of refugees includes Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Most notably, the socio-economic conditions of the Afghans residing in the host countries is questionable, with placed work-caps amidst the continual pressure to return to Afghanistan.

According to The International Organization of Migration (IOM), the number of documented Afghan refugees in Pakistan, including undocumented refugees, makes it around 2.8 million. This makes Pakistan the second-largest refugee population in the world. Pakistan will find itself trapped with another influx of refugees as it continues to recover its economy amidst a global pandemic. Over the years, many Pakistanis have grown apprehensive of the Afghan presence in the country. They believe that it exacerbates existing severe socio-economic problems, security concerns, and long-term political instability. Afghans in Pakistan are regarded accountable, at least partly, for the fast and often chaotic urbanisation of provincial capitals and for competing for employment with the local poor by accepting lower salaries. Authorities accuse them of aiding growing criminal activity, such as the smuggling of stolen items, narcotics, and weapons. There is evidence of growing hostility in local populations due to the refugees’ continued presence in Pakistan. In recent years, local Pakistani leaders have made sporadic pronouncements regarding the necessity to repatriate Afghan refugees.

Before the announcement of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the leadership in Pakistan was discussing the return of Afghans. Unsurprisingly, the officials are further clearing their stance and registering their concerns following the Afghan refugee crisis. In a recent briefing to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf warned of an upcoming onslaught by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, who might enter Pakistan dressed as refugees. These apprehensions of Pakistan vis-à-vis militants seeking entry as refugees into Pakistan is not overstated, and handling of such large numbers will require a structured security check.

With the border fencing in place, the refugee influx from Afghanistan is most likely to be curtailed. Perhaps, a viable possibility for the Pakistani leadership could be to opt for a pragmatic policy to prevent a large influx. According to Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid, Pakistan’s borders would not be opened for refugees. Instead, the government will adopt the so-called “Iranian model”, in which refugees would be kept in border camps.

From the humanitarian aspect, the pressure on Pakistan is expected to be immense, both internationally and nationally. Despite all, Pakistan must stand on its position of limiting the refugee intake and keeping its border closed. If nothing else, the commitment of international actors, mainly the United States and its NATO allies, has now become crystal clear. After keeping its presence in the country for two decades, the outcomes of a hasty withdrawal were apparent. Notably, the regional countries lack the infrastructure and resources to aid refugees. Unless the international community plays its role in assisting the host countries, expecting them to welcome another influx of refugees graciously is highly unfair.

More so, the Kabul government need to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban. Otherwise, the ensuing violence will only increase the number of displaced people. The prolonged dispossession of the Afghans must end, and the elite must formulate a plan to bring peace within Afghanistan and stop the continued misery of the people.

Saman Rizwan

Saman Rizwan is a former Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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