PAKISTAN: Afghan refugees weigh their dwindling options

ISLAMABAD, 24 August 2012 (IRIN) - At 70 years old, Mohammad Issa is already struggling to survive in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, where he sought refuge from war in Afghanistan years ago. Suffering from a heart condition, he has trouble leaving the house and depends on his children, who collect cardboard for a living.

Yet with the legal status of Afghan refugees in jeopardy, Issa may be soon faced with the prospect of starting over back home.

“I have lived a very tough life. I am tired now. I don’t want to bother anyone. I just want to be left alone so I can live out the rest of my years,” Issa told IRIN.

He is among the 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan whose registration documents are set to expire at the end of this year. The governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have not decided on an arrangement for the refugees beyond that date.

Decades of displacement

The first Afghan refugees came to Pakistan when the war in Afghanistan started in the late 1970s. Many fled Afghanistan in the decades that followed, escaping the civil war of the early 1990s and Taliban rule later in the decade. Over the years, they have set up businesses, constructed homes and settled into professions. The governments in Islamabad and Kabul, with UNHCR assistance, have provided identification cards to refugees to protect them from forcible deportation.

But Pakistan’s Afghan refugees are now in limbo. Some choose not to think about the deadline; others are scrambling to find options. Few can even afford to travel to the border if they are forced out.

At the Dhok Choorah settlement that houses about a hundred Afghan families in Islamabad, there is a mix of defiance, uncertainty and resignation.

“I have no plan, no money, if they force us out. I don’t even have the money for a bus to the border. We will have to walk,” said Najibullah Khan, 75, who scrapes together a living collecting paper and glass from the streets to sell to scrap yards. He makes the equivalent of US$2 a day, barely enough to feed his five children, four of whom have learning disabilities.

Many younger Afghans, born and raised in Pakistan, do not see return to the country of their parents’ origin - which is still wracked with violence and lacks opportunity - as an option.

“There is no way I’m going back to Afghanistan, no way anyone is forcing me go to back,” said Khan Mohammad, 23, who works as a labourer at one of Islamabad’s busiest markets. “I’d rather die than allow my children and my wife to go to Afghanistan. There is nothing but bloodshed and misery there.

“I’m trying to find a way to move to another country, but I have no money so it is difficult. But I’ll keep trying. If I fail, I’d rather stay here.”

Mohammad shares a house with his elder brother Sultan Mohammad, 35. To stay in Pakistan after the deadline, they intend to keep a low profile.
“We’ll keep our heads down, keep working hard and not get in to trouble,” Sultan said.
In a small living room decorated with rugs and cushions, the family gathers to hear news from Afghanistan. The brothers say it offers little comfort.

“It is clear what is happening in Afghanistan. How can I ask my children to go and live in a place like that?” asked Sultan, who came to Pakistan in the mid-1980s with his parents.

“Once the NATO forces leave, Afghanistan will collapse into civil war again. Never mind that, there are enemies of our family who will kill us if we set foot in our village again.”

Situation unclear

Pakistani officials have been quoted as saying registration cards for Afghan refugees will not be renewed, and that they will be asked to leave the country.

But Pakistan’s government is rife with internal power struggles, and others insist no decision has yet been taken.

The situation remains unclear, said a senior government official at the Commissionerate Afghan Refugees, run by the government of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“Several discussions have taken place. We agree that the proof of registration cards will expire at the end of the year, but we have still not made a decision on what arrangement will be put in place after that.”

UN officials have also said that no such decision has been made, and that various bodies are in discussions over an arrangement.

Mohammad Hussain, 24, a law student who works as an office manager at a law firm in Islamabad, is holding out hope.

“No one is sure about our status after December 31, but I’ve talked to many people about this, especially human rights lawyers. I don’t think they will force us out. They can’t. It would be a major international issue and the United Nations will not allow that,” he said.

UNHCR says Afghans in Pakistan will maintain their refugee status regardless of the government of Pakistan’s decision.

“People have built their entire lives here. This is their home,” Hussain said. “The government can’t just say, ‘Leave everything and go.’ I am expecting them to figure out a solution soon.”
Sitting outside her two-room mud house, Bibi, 55, who goes by just one name, wants the confusion to end.

“No officials have come to us to explain what is going on, what my options are,” Bibi said. Her husband and son, both disabled, provide the family’s only income by selling plastic bags in Islamabad’s markets.

“If they are going to throw us out, they should let us know instead of keeping us in suspense.”

For more, see IRIN’s recent in-depth on Afghan refugees in Pakistan.


Theme (s): Conflict, Economy, Governance, Refugees/IDPs, Security,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]