Will they return home?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WAY back in 1983, on a visit to Quetta, I had visited an Afghan refugee camp on the outskirts of the city. At that time the war against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan was at its height. The Geneva talks were nowhere on the horizon, and no one in his wildest dreams believed that the Russians would withdraw from Afghanistan.

The refugee camps were rich recruiting ground for the Mujahideen, although Pakistan persistently denied that its soil was in any way being used for training fighters for the Afghan resistance. It claimed that its only role was that of hosting the three million plus refugees who had sought sanctuary on Pakistani territory.

When I spoke to a number of refugees then — more than two decades ago — a very large number of them categorically said that they did not really expect to go back home. Some of them, who were men of resources, made it clear that they planned building up their lives in Pakistan. Others also whispered to me that they knew how much of the aid — arms and money — flowing into the country from the West for the refugees was being diverted to the “Pakistani middlemen” who were growing rich in the process. “We will claim our share one day,” the refugee who appeared to be acting as the spokesman for the others had said.

It had all sounded so bizarre back in 1983. But today it seems so credible. Last Friday, a report was released which gave the findings of a census of Afghan refugees conducted by the federal population census organization with financial and technical assistance from the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency). This was the first time that that such an exercise has ever been carried out. The report made some significant disclosures.

First, it gave the number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan as 3.04 million. That means that the several attempts at repatriation since 1989 when the Russian forces pulled out of the country notwithstanding, there are as many Afghan DPs (displaced persons) in Pakistan today as there were in the eighties in the camps. According to UNHCR’s goodwill ambassador, Angelina Jolie, who visited Islamabad recently, at one time there were 4.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

However, some informed sources say that at the height of the Afghan war Pakistan had given shelter to nearly six million Afghan refugees — three million in the camps and three million scattered in the cities.

Secondly, as the Afghan census report states 82 per cent of the current refugees (that is, 2.5 million) are unwilling to return home by March 2006 when the tripartite agreement between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UNHCR for the voluntary repatriation of the refugees expires.

Thirdly, 40 per cent of the refugees cited lack of security in Afghanistan as the stumbling block to their return, whereas 80 per cent spoke of absence of livelihood and 60 per cent spoke of lack of shelter. These findings are significant, for they show that normality has still not returned to many parts of Afghanistan after it has been ravaged by war for 25 years. But it is not so much the law and order situation that is a deterrent to the refugees’ return. The economic factors are more important.

What do the results of this survey establish about the Afghan refugees in Pakistan? Now we know that in the absence of a scientifically conducted census, Pakistan has constantly underestimated the strength of the Afghans in this country.

Even if we set aside this number game, which is not unimportant if one is to plan systematically, the present state of the refugees has serious implications for their future in this country. With an overwhelming majority of them today wanting to stay on here, at least 2.5 million refugees will remain in Pakistan at the end of the voluntary repatriation process in 2005. The preponderance of children among the refugees — the UNHCR states that 62 per cent of the returnees in 2003 were under 18 years old — points to the absence of an effective family planning programme among the Afghans. With a higher growth rate, the number of Afghan refugees will multiply rapidly. Are we heading for another human catastrophe?

The UNHCR initially played a positive role in providing shelter, education, health care and food aid to the refugees housed in the camps. The commission has also been a big help in repatriating refugees, especially by virtue of its presence on the other side of the Durand Line. Now that Pakistan and Afghanistan are looking into the matter jointly with the active cooperation of the UNHCR, one hopes that the issue of the remaining refugees is resolved before the UNHCR winds up its operations in this country.

If the security situation in Afghanistan continues to be volatile, many of the DPs would be deterred from returning. But it is the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan that has assumed more importance because the refugees appear to be more concerned about their job prospects.

The Return Commission Working Group in Kabul sent a delegation to Pakistan recently to reassure the refugees that they would be welcome to return and pick up the threats of their lives from where they had left off. President Karzai’s government has set up special courts to address property disputes between the returnees and the Afghans who stayed back and occupied abandoned dwellings and land.

The UNHCR and numerous NGOs have helped provide training in various skills to the refugees to facilitate their return. All this requires funds and the UNHCR has appealed to the international community for aid. If all the refugees cannot be repatriated in the next year or so, they will be inclined to stay on. In that case, it is important that those who remain should not become a burden on this country. This could be done by carrying out a qualitative assessment of those who stay back to determine their economic and educational status to facilitate a plan to decide on a future course of action.

Those who are economically productive here and cannot return right away may be granted work visas for five years and be allowed to pay visits to Afghanistan to assess their prospects so that they are in a position to take a decision on this issue. Others may be expatriated in stages to give time to the Afghan government to absorb them in their home country. Meanwhile, those who are engaged in a profession should be organized in such a way that they can return with their businesses.

Thus one hopes that the refugee problem created by the big powers who fought their cold war battles in Afghanistan will be resolved to the satisfaction of all in the near future. It is the moral responsibility of the world community, especially the US and Russia, to provide funds for the repatriation operation.

True, many in Pakistan attribute many of this country’s troubles to the Afghans — the Kalashnikov culture, heroin addiction, environmental degradation, violence and economic problems. But we should also not forget that the situation was exploited to the hilt by the military government of General Zia for its own political and economic gains. Many landlords and kiln owners also used the refugees as indentured labour. The people of Pakistan are still paying the wages of their leaders’ sins. Can the refugees be blamed for it?