Pakistan has an impressive history as hosting country for Afghan refugees since the 1970s, mainly after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve in 1979, justified by a friendship treaty of 1978 between the countries, and USSR feared that Afghanistan might change loyalty to the West. Further conflicts followed in Afghanistan after the USSR withdrawal in 1989, indeed during the Taliban rule 1996-2001. Pakistan continued to open its doors to Afghan refugees. Over the years, more than seven million Afghans have come to Pakistan, and more than four million have returned. Today, there are 1.4 million registered refuges in Pakistan, and an estimated 2.5-3 million Afghans in Pakistan in total. Iran has also hosted huge numbers of Afghan refugees, and it still does, with little support and recognition from the international community.

This week, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United Nations have been taking stock of the 40-year protracted refugee history at the ‘Refugee Summit Islamabad’, also looking ahead for a ‘New Partnership for Solidarity’.

The main event was the ‘Refugee Summit Islamabad’, but many side-line meetings were attended by the topmost leaders of the United Nations, including the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who was earlier UN High Commissioner for Refugees, with many visits to Pakistan. He praised Pakistan and its people for generously hosting many millions Afghan refugees.

The ‘Refugee Summit Islamabad’ was held at a time when there are prospects for a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, as well as a reduction of foreign troops in the country, after 20 war years. Sadly, an American-Western military presence in Afghanistan remains part of the problem and, maybe, also the solution. Pakistan does what it can to facilitate the peace process, and the top speakers underlined the importance of getting things right this time; UN Secretary General Guterres said that “no Afghan will forgive us if this opportunity is not seized”. PM Imran Khan promised that Pakistan will continue to do its utmost.

The ‘Refugee Summit Islamabad’ did indeed have prominent speakers and panellists, among them Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Dr. Sania Nishtar. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech was moving and impressive. He mentioned that his mother’s family had come from India as refugees at the time of the partitioning in 1947. He said that there are also positive aspects to being a host country for refugees and many Afghans have contributed to the host country’s development. Yet, Pakistan is a poor country itself and is facing many difficulties, not least as for unemployment. He said the last twenty years must have been the most difficult in Pakistan’s history, also because of terrorism. But he underlined that if foreigners just look at the negative issues in a country, they don’t see reality. He recalled that when he first came to UK, there was a small but visible group of young men being against foreigners, the ‘skin heads’. But UK, one of the most liberal countries in the world, could not be judged by the presence of a few ‘skin heads’.

The PM spent time talking about the Kashmir issue and he wanted the UN to do more; the UN Secretary General himself stressed the urgency for finding a peaceful solution, and he presented a mediation offer. Yet, India has to participate to reach any results.

The Kashmir conflict cannot be solved fully by the UN, even if both of the two countries agreed to come to the negotiating table, under UN mediation. Unfortunately, the UN rules are such that it cannot solve countries’ conflicts; it can help, but only the concerned countries can solve them. There is need for more trust-creation and cooperation between India and Pakistan. If that can be achieved, the Kashmir situation will be improved and ultimately solved. I mentioned this in my column last week, too.

However, I do hope that the UN Secretary General can urgently help improve the terrible human rights situation in IOK, worsened again after the Indian annexation in August last year. People need to live in dignity, not in humiliation, and the Kashmiri people have a right to self-determination. The grave situation is politically and morally unacceptable.

PM Imran Khan drew attention to the dangers in the ultranationalist Hindutva ideology of the current rulers in India, where ethnic and religious factors make some people outcasts. The Muslim minority is two hundre million in a country with much over a billion people. He said that we have seen what extreme thinking can lead to, comparing with Nazism. If the situation gets far worse, it could have enormous destructive effects on the country and region, with unprecedented numbers of refugees coming to Pakistan.

In the refugee field there is very little research, in spite of its 40-year history affecting many million people and major expenses from the host country’s government and individuals, UNHCR, other UN agencies, bilateral agencies, and NGOs. All organizations prepare a lot of reports about their own work, including monitoring and evaluation reports, not all actors and the epoch. The reports are invaluable for research, but are not research as such. It is essential that Pakistan documents and carries out research about its refugee history, to learn from it at home and teach others. In 2006-2007, after I had worked for UNHCR and UNESCO for several years as a refugee education specialist in Pakistan, I wrote three research-based books about the Afghan refugee education history in Pakistan, from 1980-2005, under the title ‘Learning Away from Home’. Now, it is time to continue that work, and to write about other fields. It puzzles me that so little research has been done. The proud history must be documented and that could be one concrete follow-up after the ‘Refugee Summit Islamabad’ this week. With more than 70 million refugees in the world, living poor lives, we must give the field much more research focus, and indeed funding.

Finally, today is the ‘World Day of Social Justice’, with the 2020 theme being ‘closing the inequalities gap’. Much of the worst social, economic, gender and other inequalities in the world are in conflict and post-conflict situations, affecting refugees and other migrants.