Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan on Wednesday told the National Assembly that the children of Afghan refugees in Pakistan couldn’t be issued Pakistani citizenship documents. Though it might seem unfair to the Afghan refugee families who have settled here for over three decades, whose children have been born and bred in Pakistan, the fact remains that the law gives the state descretion over giving or revoking citizenship. If the state decides that the security interests of the country outweigh the objections of the refugees at the seemingly harsh directive, then that is what must be.

The minister went on to clarify that the children of Afghan refugees were Afghans and not entitled to the privilege, even if their mothers were Pakistani citizens. Interestingly, under the Pakistan Citizenship 1951 Act, as originally in force, any person born in Pakistan after commencement is a citizen of Pakistan. This birthright citizenship has not been extended to the Afghan refugees at any point in history due to political and security reasons. According to a clause of the 1951 Act citizenship may also be concurred by descent if one parent has the Pakistani Citizenship. But the parent referred to in this clause is the father and not the mother, and thus even though the mothers of the children of the Afghan refugees may be Pakistani, she forfeits the right to demand a citizenship for her child when she marries a non-Pakistani.

Pakistan has not ratified the UN convention on refugees or the Geneva Convention that place international legal obligations to naturalise refugees. This gives the state of Pakistan the complete authority to bestow citizenship upon whom it pleases. According to Clause 5 of the Naturalisation Act 1926, “If the Federal Government is satisfied that the applicant is qualified for the grant of a certificate of naturalisation and is otherwise a fit person for the grant of such certificate, it may grant a certificate reciting the qualifications of the applicant for such grant and conferring upon him all the rights, privileges and capacities of naturalisation under this Act”. This clause essentially keeps the qualification of the applicant very vague by assigning the description of “fit”.

If the state chooses to deny the Afghan refugees citizenship, we can only hope that it does so after carefully weighing the security threats that have plagued Pakistan for almost a decade. The Interior Minister is taking measures that are harsh, but legally sound. Even so, such decisions will have deep impacts of the lives of the Afghans, and cannot be taken lightly.