Thirty-five years on, of the 3.5 million Afghan refugees – that was the net outcome of Afghan jihad for Pakistan – 2.5 million still stay put here, as much for absence of a well-defined policy on the part of the host government as for the apathy of international community.
Over the time, only some 1.5 million have been registered not, and most of them have left their dedicated camps and spread all over the place. Their repatriation is extremely slow – scores of deadlines fixed for them to go back to Afghanistan have come and gone without their number in Pakistan going down significantly.
As the last deadline for registration expired at the end of June the prime minister extended it by another six months as if the host country too is not very keen on their quicker return.
But that was so until now when irrefutable evidence began emerging that some of them are involved in acts of terrorism.
No wonder then various sections of the government have expressed determination that this would be the last deadline by which the Afghan refugees should either go back home or produce Proof of Registration (PoR) cards.
But that is huge challenge for the host government. To get done something before the year is out which could not be done during all these years is not going to be easy.
The six-month extension granted by the prime minister as proposed by the UNHCR has provoked a kind of national debate for and against this decision.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has expressed serious concern over the continuing stay of Afghan refugees, for it is ‘hurting the economy and culture of the province’.
But quite a few Pushtun reject this perception, and one among them is blue-blooded Pushtun Mehmood Khan Achakzai.
What he said, and then tried to put it in correct perspective, in an interview with the Afghanistan Times is quite revealing: “If Afghans are harassed in other parts of Pakistan they should come here to the Pakhtunkhwa province where no one can ask them for refugee cards because it belongs to them”.
But later on during the day he disowned this, insisting ‘all he said was that historically KP was part of Afghanistan and that he didn’t say KP is now part of Afghanistan’.
What Achakzai said or did not say is certainly interesting grist to media mills. But what deeply concerns Pakistan, and invites serious debate, here and abroad, is the lingering stay of some 2.5 million refugees on its soil.
Come what may they must go back as they have taken one million jobs, insists minister in-charge Lieutenant General Abdul Qadir Baloch (Retd).
There is also growing evidence of some of the Afghan refugees’ involvement in acts of terrorism, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi. In Balochistan, their presence is said to have distorted the demographic map of the province.
But that said, the fact cannot be denied that it is not only a human issue but also hard to resolve given the unabated chaos and anarchy in their homeland Afghanistan.
In the first four months of this year, only 3500 PoR card holders opted to go back, as compared to some 58,000 last year, suggesting an unending state of uncertainty and inability in Afghanistan.
Given post-Cold War restructuring of world order the number of international refugees is bound to go up, as is presently the case in the Middle East and North Africa.
But that should not put the world concern about the Afghan refugees on the back burner. Perhaps in case of Afghan refugees the international community could help improve conditions for enhanced voluntary repatriation by actively supporting the agenda of Quadrilateral Co-ordination Committee instead of wrecking the peace process by droning the head of Afghan Taliban Mulla Akhtar Mansour.
The world should look back at the Afghan refugees and help alleviate their misery that is essentially not of their own doing but of the superpowers’ of the time.
At the same time it is imperative that Islamabad and Kabul should return to the negotiating table to discuss and resolve issues and problems that so readily throw their bilateral talks out of gear.
Peace between them would be the best incentive for quicker repatriation of Afghsan refugees. -Business Recorder