A recent incendiary and cruel statement by Sarfaraz Bugti, interior minister of Baluchistan, about expelling Afghan refugees sparked a controversy in the country with regard to the refugees’ future in Pakistan. His unfortunate statement probably left quite a mark on the minds of many, but possibly his statement also reflects the prejudice against the refugees many Pakistanis hold.
Recent research put the number of registered refugees at 1.5 million, and an additional one to two million to be residing in Pakistan unregistered. Most importantly, it shows that 90% moved to Pakistan in the 1980s and 76% were born here and most are employed in low-income labour jobs. Further, while millions went back to Afghanistan, large numbers are migrating to third countries as well, where possible because of the lure of better conditions and opportunities but also because of ‘state hostility, negative public discourse and scapegoating’.
Given that the vast majority were born in Pakistan and the rest are most likely their parents or grandparents who have made this country their home, the state and people’s hostility towards them is incomprehensible. There is talk at governmental and public levels of ‘sending them back’. I cannot fathom what back is for those who have never seen another place, nor lived in the villages or cities their forefathers left behind. These are human beings who were born in Pakistan and live and work here. What else is the spirit of citizenship? It is inhuman and cruel to be talking about ‘sending back’ over three million human beings to the slaughter house that is Afghanistan even today, to a place where their homes or lands have most likely been taken over by others.
A recent dialogue with a respected colleague illuminated my mind as to the arguments in favour of expelling them though. Variously these arguments held that the refugees are radicalised, that they came under the agreement that one day they would go back, that they are a burden on our infrastructure and economy, that they are not our problem, that the Pakistani state must own its own before owning foreigners, that they could be sleeper cells and spies etc.
But to my mind none of these suspicions, allegations or agreements are applicable to the unique circumstances of the Afghan refugees, nor can they be made the basis for expelling millions who have been living and working here since they were born. First, there is scant evidence that all three million refugees are radicalized – most are earning a peaceful living. And if we are to speak of radicalization, the systematic network of madressas and mosque khateebs have radicalized Punjabis, Sindhis and Balochis as well. Should we be expelling all radicalized persons? Why just scapegoat those who fled war and terror and are barely managing to eke out a living? Should the Pakistani state be punishing the wretched for its own mistakes?
An honest nation would admit that by targeting the refugees, it would be striking at the effect and not the cause: the two Afghan wars of the 1979/80s and the post 9/11 war sparked the migration. Both times Pakistan played no small part in helping to create, fund and train the Mujahideen the first time around, and duplitiously continue to sustain and fund the Afghan Taliban post 9/11 while pretending to help the U.S in its war on terror. To this day Pakistan hosts the Quetta and Kuchlak based Afghan Taliban as well as the Haqqani Network. These are the terrorists that continue to keep Afghanistan unstable even today, and we claim that the refugees are not our problem. Given our historic role in the misery of the Afghans and the destruction of their generations, how do we begin to make this claim?
So we shall strike at the effect of the radicalisation the Pakistani state has been engineering, not the cause. Madressas continue to radicalise, khateebs remain free to spread hate and divisions, Al Huda remains free to poison minds, curriculums in schools continue to teach hate of the other, Lal Masjid and Maulana Aziz continue to terrorise and defy the state, but we shall expel the wretched refugees who fled death and terror caused in no small part by our own state.
The suspicion of them being sleeper cells and spies is more bizarre still. To label over three million thus without any basis whatsoever is nothing less than prejudice. As another friend pointed out, a Punjabi or Sindhi was much better placed to be a spy, why stigmatise Afghans? There is no plausible answer to that.
To my mind the only paradigm that can be applied to the question of the refugees’ future is the human rights paradigm: those who have lived either all or most of their lives here and wish to remain, should be naturalised now. Over three decades is no joke, there is no ‘back’ to go to. We must accept those who wish to stay as fellow Pakistanis and be inclusive with an open heart. We cannot, must not, demand open doors for Muslims or others of Syria and Iraq from Europe and America, but refuse to accept Afghans who have lived with us for three decades. To do so would not just be inhumane and against the most basic principles of human rights, but also the most hideous form of double standards.