Pakistan’s refugee dilemma

Pakistan faces a major dilemma as it deals with 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees and almost one million undocumented Afghans currently living in Pakistan. Our government had wanted all refugees to leave the country by this year’s end. However, that would not resolve the issue given the largely porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which is crossed at will by Pashtun and Baloch tribes.

Of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, 31 have seen incidents of violence in recent months. Instability in that country will simply force the refugees back across the border, into Pakistan. The only durable solution to the Afghan refugee crisis, therefore, is stability within Afghanistan.

However, it is essential that Pakistan take steps to reduce the burden of hosting Afghan refugees. First, it must work with UNHCR to ensure the delivery of aid pledged by the 28 Nato countries last month for Afghanistan. Second, to ensure transparency, UNHCR rather than our government should disburse all aid to refugees. Third, Pakistan and UNHCR must press developed countries to take in more Afghan refugees from Pakistan on an annual basis. These refugees would be able to support their relatives in Pakistan. Last but not least, the Pakistan-Afghanistan-UNHCR Tripartite Commission, at its recent meeting, committed itself to empowering Afghan refugees in Pakistan by teaching them various skills that would benefit Pakistan, as well as providing a livelihood for them when they return home.

We must remember that Afghan refugees contribute substantially to our economy as well. A large number of refugees receive monthly remittances from their relatives in developed countries, which they spend in the local economies. In addition, a significant number of affluent refugees run businesses in Pakistan, thus creating job opportunities for the locals. Furthermore, many refugees work essential, low-paying jobs that locals are usually unwilling to take. And then there are refugees with special skills, such as carpet weavers, who make quality Afghan rugs which are then exported as Pakistan-made products to developed countries for hefty profits.

Regardless of the duration of Afghan refugees’ stay on our soil, our religion requires that we treat them with compassion and respect. Pakistan is also obligated to respect and safeguard the human rights of Afghan refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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