Citizenship for refugees

Credit should be given where it is due. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement that his government would work to provide citizenship to Afghan and Bengali refugees in Pakistan is a welcome one, and the proposal will go some way towards addressing the blatant injustice and marginalisation that has been experienced by these groups for several decades. Several generations of refugees have now been born in Pakistan and yet, despite having become an intrinsic part of the country’s social fabric, they have long been deprived of many of the rights enjoyed by average Pakistanis. Their insecure position within society, lacking any formal legal protection and unable to even acquire a national ID card (often a prerequisite for even the most basic tasks like opening a bank account or taking a job) has long left these refugees and their descendants vulnerable to the predations of corrupt state officials, criminal mafias, and unscrupulous employers, and has left them condemned to lives defined by poverty and hardship.

Offering Afghan and Bengali refugees and migrants citizenship would go a long way towards improving their lives, and much of the reaction to the Prime Minister’s announcement has been positive. Nonetheless, there are voices, within parliament and on the streets of Pakistan, that have objected to this plan on the grounds that doing so would legitimise the behaviour and actions of communities that have been associated with criminal activity in Karachi, and would also impose additional strains, in terms of service provision, on a state that can barely cater to its existing citizens. Rather than providing Bengalis and Afghans with citizenship, the argument goes, it makes much more sense to send them back to their countries of origin (although how these countries could be ‘home’ for individuals born and living in Pakistan does not make much sense).

It is in response to these criticisms that Imran Khan has said that the decision to grant citizenship to these groups will only be taken after consulting parliament. This, too, is a welcome move in a country that has become inured to the sight of powerful individuals unilaterally deciding policy with no involvement of Pakistan’s democratic institutions. Yet, it should also be recognised that the arguments being made against Bengalis and Afghans are both flimsy and cynical, tapping into a potent mix of racism, economic anxiety, and fears regarding security, for the purpose of pursuing narrow political agendas.

That this is the case is not difficult to demonstrate. For example, the public discourse in Pakistan regarding Afghan refugees has, for many years, linked this community to street crime and, more recently, terrorism. This latter development is arguably an outgrowth of the narrative surrounding both the American-lend War on Terror and Pakistan’s own internal struggle against militant activity. One of the more unfortunate consequences of over a decade of conflict in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA has been a tendency, on the part of the government, the military establishment, and the media, to demonise Pashtuns, labelling them as irredeemably violent and prone to participating in militancy and terrorism. The racist stereotyping of Pashtuns, and the hostility with which they are now viewed in some parts of the country, can be seen in remarks made about the PTM, the suspicion with which IDPs were treated outside of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, and the everyday encouragement of racist narratives (as seen last week in an advertisement aired by the Punjab Government that portrayed Pashtuns as enemies of the state). Matters are not helped by how Afghanistan is blamed for much of the terrorism inside Pakistan, making Pakistan’s Afghan population guilty by association.

That this narrative about Pashtuns in general and Afghans in particular is problematic should be self-evident, yet it is one that continues to inform the debate about granting the latter citizenship. Similarly, given how granting Afghans and Bengalis would have interesting electoral implications, given that most estimates suggest that there are possibly millions of such migrants currently in Pakistan, it is not surprising to find some political parties expressing reservations over the Prime Minister’s plan. That these reservations are couched in typically racist language if, of course, simply a reflection of how these parties are tapping into the broader public discourse around refugees.

The debate over granting refugees citizenship is also interesting because it exposes deeper anxieties around citizenship and belonging in Pakistan. It might not be unreasonable to suggest, for example, that the narrow definition of who can or cannot be included in the nation has always been used to discriminate against those who do not fit a particular official orthodoxy, whether it be in terms of their faith (as the case of Ahmadis shows) or their ethnicity (Bengalis were pilloried for their alleged lack of patriotic sentiment in the years leading up to 1971, as are many Balochis today). In that sense, debates around national identity in Pakistan have always been used to perpetuate the power of some dominant groups over others, and it will be interesting to see if anything actually comes out of the Prime Minister’s statement in Karachi. More importantly, it is also worth considering if any positive momentum that emerges from this decision can be transferred to recognising other marginalised groups in Pakistan, and working towards ameliorating their position within the country. If history is a guide, skepticism might be the best attitude to adopt here (especially given the PTI government’s demonstrated inability to show a backbone in the face of opposition), but hope springs eternal.


n            The writer is an assistant professor

of political science at LUMS.

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