I cannot drive my usual route home from work, past the informal Afghan refugee settlement on the outskirts of the H-12 sector in Islamabad,” a senior government official told me recently. “It is so heartbreaking to see the children on the road clothed in tatters, dirty and sad. Most of them were chased from another settlement some time earlier. Yet, these children are beautiful, just like my own children,” the civil servant from Mardan said. He added that the Capital Development Authority (CDA) will again demolish a large refugee and IDP settlement in the I-11 sector, probably for security reasons, situated near the upscale, foreign-owned Metro Supermarket. No alternative location has been designated for them in the capital; they should simply leave, get out of sight, out of thought, ignoring the fact that they were forced migrants in the first place. Luckily, thus far, there is a temporary standoff in the matter.

Is this really how the revered kindness of Pakistanis is best reflected? Do our religions not teach us otherwise? Still, there are deep class divisions and often, we see the poor as different from ourselves. We may sympathize, feel compassion, or take another highway to avoid seeing reality. But we don’t do much in the way of help. The government may not have resources to help all, but could they not do more? And what about the UN, the 70 odd embassies and numerous international NGOs in the capital; do they all just take a detour instead of facing the problems at hand?

For well over a generation, Pakistan has hosted about seven million Afghan refugees. Almost four million have returned to Afghanistan (and many have become worse off there than they were in exile). Today, Pakistan has 1.6 million registered refugees and at least a million others. Nobody really knows how many. About a million live in refugee camps or villages, as they are called. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR only supports camp refugees. As seen from a humanitarian perspective, this is an inexplicable cut-off method; it is probably handy for the agency, but terrible for the clients they were meant to help. They usually don’t help IDPs either.

I have spent most of my professional life in development and humanitarian aid and research, including dealing with refugees and hosting areas for refugees – first in East Africa and later in Pakistan. If things are not right, I must take my share of the blame. But that doesn’t make the situation any easier for affected refugees, IDPs and their hosts. Neglect doesn’t free us from responsibility, neither in war nor in peace. We are guilty if we do not speak up on behalf of the suffering

When I worked in UNHCR and later in UNESCO, with special responsibility for refugee education well over a decade ago, I was initially impressed by the UNHCR’s practical and quick actions, often with young staff members. Since I had earlier only worked in UNESCO and the World Bank, I found that refreshing. But alas, there are certain things that can only be solved by systematic, long-term planning and action. UNESCO has that capacity, but it is too slow, and neither UNESCO nor UNICEF seem to want to work together with UNHCR. As a result, their clients suffer.  UNDP, the overall development organization with UNOCHA seems to be more preoccupied with bureaucracy and report writing than anything else. And what about UN Women? Shouldn’t that agency have a key place, since three-quarters of refugees are usually women and children? There are many other prestigious organizations with bid names, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Save the Children Alliance (SCA), International Rescue Committee (IRC), and embassies– but they seem only to refer matters to their home capitals. Then, they need not be bothered with fact-finding and advocacy work on country missions. Still, shouldn’t more be expected from the embassies in the world’s largest refugee hosting country?

I was working in Pakistan when the first large number of Afghan refugees began returning home in 2001 and 2002, after the fall of the Taliban and the American-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan. The UNHCR representative at the time, Hasim Utan, said his agency had the honour of having assisted one and a half million to return in a year’s time, and then added that most of them would probably have gone anyway, even without the few dollars they received from the UNHCR at the end of the bus ride into Afghanistan. Utan seemed to have some doubts about what was happening. But it was Holger Munsch, the head of a large UNHCR and German funded ‘BEFARe’ education project in KP (then NWFP) who said it was wrong and irresponsible to send such large groups of poor people into Afghanistan at such an uncertain time. But we turned a blind eye and for several years large numbers returned, also from Iran. In recent years though, less than a hundred thousand have left Pakistan, and some have come back, and last year only about thirty thousand returned.

If such a devastating refugee crisis had occurred in Europe or elsewhere in the West, it is likely that resources provided for the refugees and for repatriation would have been entirely different in magnitude and quality. We would have established disability and war pensions for the old; we would have built homes for veterans and others who could not look after themselves; we would have provided medical, psychological and social help for those who needed it. But the current tragedy only unfolds in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two of the world’s poorest countries (and most other underfunded crises are in other developing countries).

Last week, I had the opportunity to discuss some of the above issues with Pakistani officials. They too were dissatisfied and concerned. It is not that Pakistan’s government that has not done enough. It has in fact, done quite  a lot, as have the kind citizens of the host country. It is the international community which has not done what we have the right to expect in our time. We must remember that the superpowers must take much of the responsibility for Afghanistan’s tragedy. Their own geopolitical interests have come before all others.

Today, a large international conference on migration issues will open at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. I hope some of these issues will be discussed there. But most of all, I hope that in the future, the Pakistani authorities alongside the Afghan authorities, and the refugees themselves, will seek practical and durable solutions that are acceptable to all. Most of the expenses must be settled by those who caused the generation-long tragedy; it wasn’t the Taliban or those behind the unfortunate events of 9/11, and it was certainly not the Afghan people. Mainly, it was the USSR and the US. Things done cannot be undone, but can the international community not do more – as is its duty?

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.

Email:atlehetland@yahoo.com