What do the Refugees think?

A few days back, Pakistan’s interior minister issued a statement stating the State’s intent to forcefully repatriate undocumented Afghan refugees amid the recent surge in acts of terrorism in its northwestern and southwestern provinces. In response, the Taliban government’s spokesperson asked Pakistani authorities to rethink their plan. Nonetheless, law enforcement agencies soon translated the interior minister’s words into action in major cities of Pakistan. Refugees were detained and beaten, and a few of their settlements were destroyed in Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi. In those settlements also lived the Proof of Resident Card holders, who were treated in the same manner as their undocumented counterparts. Those who have been repatriated these days can be counted in the hundreds. The statements from both sides are still pouring, and so are their consequences. We know what the authorities in Pakistan think and what opinions those in power quarters of Afghanistan hold. What they accuse each other of, their concerns, their anger…however, to our surprise, there is a third stakeholder in the situation- refugees. The most vulnerable, voiceless faction living in constant precarity no matter whether they stay at home, leave for refuge, or return.

Pakistan accuses them of terrorism, and denial comes from Afghanistan. Between the two states, what do the refugees think? Yes, they believe and feel, to our astonishment, indifference and oblivion. In the “bigger” scheme of the events, the people being discussed and decided for are dehumanized and reduced to beings who only need food to survive. They are thought about in an almost animalistic manner. Even when the terrorism factor is subtracted, they are considered a burden on the already frail economy of Pakistan. Ironically enough, the extent to which they are considered the economic burden is quite disproportionate to what is considered their only justified need and is very reluctantly given the pass to pursue- food.

The camps that UNHCR now wants to be called villages have been there for decades and do not have a supply of electricity, any medical facility, or any infrastructure for that matter except a few UNHCR-funded schools, diplomas of which no higher education institutes in Pakistan accept without equivalence certificate which takes at least couple of years to process if luck is on one’s side. Pakistani educational institutes, most of them, do not admit refugees. After all odds, when few of them reach universities, they cannot access scholarships or resources such as laptops.  In the formal sector, the government does not offer refugees any employment; the same goes for registered private limiteds; only the development sector provides token work on an ad-hoc basis. Therefore, there is no educational or employment burden on the state. Few banks have a policy to entertain refugee clients and those who do not open corporate accounts. The informal sector does almost all of the employment or exploitation. Every other aid-dependent medical facility requires a National identity card even for the consideration of the patients. Those with Afghan Citizenship cards or undocumented immigrants are pulled out of buses during inter-city travels, and those with POR cards are charged twice the ticket payment. Law enforcement’s favorite pastime is to bully the immigrants and extract their daily Chae Pani. Pakistan does not provide Afghan refugees with any hope or opportunity for a better present or future, just a chance to barely survive until circumstances change. Yet, they do not think of return. It explains the magnitude of issues they face back home is way worse.

Being professionally involved in the domain provides a bare view and understanding of their “bare lives.” Some sensitization that I wish should be common among the masses. The development sector keeps emphasizing refugees, seeing the glass half full. Only positive, praising, and oh-so-scripted words are given space in their annual newsletters. But what they often choose to forget is that there is no glass… and water, how little it is, is on the ground, turning it into a quagmire, slowly swallowing the hopes and lives of the population they are paid lots to work for. In Pakistan, they are seen as burdens, projects, or terrorists. Here, readers should ask themselves, when did we dehumanize an entire population that today what they think or feel is not even the last thought that crosses the mind?  Here are some thoughts that those refugee students enrolled in higher educational institutes of Balochistan shared regarding Pakistan’s decision of forceful repatriation in a meeting held a couple of weeks earlier at work. “It would take a century for us to settle there.” “We can’t even imagine anything positive happening to us back home under the current regime.” “People find it difficult even to move a house, and you expect us to move country? Again?” “Our fathers left that country decades ago; we are born here.. If we are forced to return, we won’t be able even to understand the language there… The dialects have changed in all those years that have passed.” “I went there (Afghanistan) a few months back to process my educational documents and saw no opportunity for my gender. I went there and came back disturbed. The possibility of living the rest of my life there makes me anxious.” “I am a university student; it is very rare for us to reach here. I am on scholarship, yet my future is uncertain. They can send us back at any given moment, and I will lose everything that I achieved here at that very moment. This costs me my focus on my studies.” (Names are not mentioned due to privacy concerns). So they do think. Now the question is, as a host population, do we care? Or what can be done about it?


Liaison Officer


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