Friday, August 5, 2011

Afghan Refugees must be sent back to Afghanistan

August 5, 2011

By Saeed Qureshi

The Afghan refugees have been living in Pakistan for 30 years now. Roughly 4 million refugees came to Pakistan following the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union armed forces in 1979.

The massive upheaval, the brutalities by the invaders and the evolving civil war situation forced million of Afghans to take shelter in Pakistan. By now their number should be doubled or trebled because the Afghans and Pathans raise big families.

These refugees were lodged in various camps including the largest called Jalozai near Peshawar. But a large number of Afghans spread all over Pakistan where they purchased properties and businesses and thrived with the passage of time.

Although the UNHCR was involved into the refugee transition in Pakistan, it was primarily the host country Pakistan that had to bear the major brunt of such a huge influx of human beings. Pakistan herself has always been beset with the phenomenon of fast growing population.

In the absence of pre-emptive or anticipatory plans for development; the additional burden of several million foreigners took its toll on the Pakistan’s fragile economy by considerably impairing it. Besides it led to a colossal social upheaval.

Though for a specific period of time, the most appalling and ruinous impact of the Afghan refugees’ sojourn was deforestation of the lush green valleys in the NWFP province (renamed Now Pakhtunkhwa Khyber) where the slopes and ridges of the mountains were covered with pine trees for ages.

Now these picturesque, serene and captivating valleys, dales and forests are barren, bald and denuded because the Afghan refugees cut them mercilessly for fuel and also for selling them in the timber markets.

The transportation sector that was one of the major mainstays of income for the Pakistani middle class families and even of wealthy entrepreneurs was robbed partially or wholly by the Rich Afghans who had tons of money brought from Afghanistan. They gave tough competitive challenges to the local transporters by cheaper fares and better vehicles.

Being physically tough, with no hold barred atmosphere for them, and nothing to fall back upon or lose, they applied themselves wholeheartedly and with dedication and resilience to create a new destiny in Pakistan by making as much money as they could through fair or foul means. The ordinary Afghans took up menial jobs.

After the exit of the communist army from Afghanistan in 1989, a fraction of the refugees returned to their country of origin. But because of the porous borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the cross border movement of these refugees can never be stopped.

If some refugees are repatriated to Afghanistan they return after some time. Such porous borders also facilitate the murderous incursions of the radical militants to move to either side for clandestine trading or for launching attacks as and when they want.

The Durand Line demarcated by the British in 1893 between Afghanistan and the British India (now Pakistan) is a kind of imaginary and ineffectual line that was never converted into a permanent border till now despite several initiatives taken even after the establishments of Pakistan from both the sides. There was always a stumbling block that came in the way of materializing this indispensible goal.

Afghan society, by and large, has been a more tolerant, progressive and liberal society as compared to other Islamic states and even Pakistan. The Afghan society and the people cherish the galore of ceremonial festivities and celebrate these with highly extravagant and lavish display. The girls from the Muslim families are married to Sikh and Hindus and members of other faiths and denominations.

The businesses from a cloth shop to airline ticketing are equally owned and run by non-Muslims mostly Sikhs who had settled in Afghanistan during the reign of Raja Renjaeet Singh. So in way it is a society that is secular culturally and far from the religious taboos and bigotry that one can find in other Islamic societies.

These refugee Afghans who were mostly from the lower and middle class families brought that culture of conspicuous openness with them. In Pakistan too they would rock and dance in their marriage ceremonies and in other joyous festivities in the same manner as they did in Afghanistan. Even those Afghans who came from the villages were not as rigid Muslims as one can find on this side of the border called the tribal belt.

The Islamic rigidity was forcefully injected and instilled in the Afghan society by the Taliban that and prior to that by the Islamic volunteers called Mujahedeen and Jihadists who converged on Afghanistan to fight against the communist forces of the Soviet Union.

Those crusaders or Jihadist groups also mobilized and goaded the local Afghan Muslims cadres on the slogan of fighting a heathen occupant and invader for the sake of Islam However, the strings of this decade long holy war were being pulled by the Christian western countries, particularly the United States; an inveterate foe of the Communist Russia.

Thus there came a turning point in the lives of liberal and cosmopolitan Afghan society when Islamic jihadists motivated them under the banner of Islam. The Jihadist groups imposed this religious regime under coercion, intimidation and with extreme brutalities as later demonstrated by the Taliban during their sway of 6 years (1996-2001) over Afghanistan.

This paradigm shift took place in Afghanistan that betokened a diametric change from liberalism to Islamic extremism. With the fusion and amalgamation of Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbeks races and even Iranians with more rigid faith, the Liberal, open and even secular Afghanistan became the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

But those Afghan families who migrated to Pakistan as refugees did not suffer from such inhibitions. They were relatively free to follow their permissive cultural chores and traditions in Pakistan which was still relatively a freer county and safe from the civil war raging in their homeland.

The Afghan families married profusely in Pakistan both males and females and thus cultivated and created kinship that would ensure them or at least their children to become safe and part of a more secure and developed society of Pakistan.

But the adverse fallout of this colossal migration has been very deep on Pakistani society. One was the indulgence and involvement of the Afghan refugees in illegal and ubiquitous criminal activities.

The thefts, the bank robberies, the break-ins, the kidnappings for ransom, the drug trade, and prostitution sprouted and surged phenomenally and voluminously. There have been countless feuds of killings and violent episodes between the locals and the Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

With the induction and sway of the religious extremism, the Pakistani society also underwent a colossal metamorphosis. It evolved a dual yet heterogeneous complexion. One was that the religious radicals attained ascendency that had started during President Ziaul Haq’s tenure who assumed a role of supreme and zealous mentor for the religious right in Pakistan.

But the other side of this change was the affluence of crime and immoral waywardness that was one of the offshoots of the liberal Afghan sections now residing in Pakistan. The Afghan jihad and the exodus of Afghans to Pakistan led to the so called mushrooming of the culture of Kalashnikov and lethal fire weapons, proliferation of killer drug such as heroin, besides giving birth to lax and licentious culture.

The Afghans are obligated by a deadline of 2012 to return to Afghanistan which means next year. Yet such a possibility seems to be remote and unrealistic. It is utterly impossible for the Pakistan authorities to physically push back the Afghan refugees beyond the Durand Line.

Even otherwise the Afghans who have immersed and integrated in Pakistani society in every manner would never go back and it might take decades before they can be identified as Afghans. In view of the second or third generation of Afghan refugees, the identification of their roots and origin as Afghans, seemingly, is a tall order.

If the government conscientiously and aggressively takes up this task of sending back the bulk of refugees, Pakistan will be relieved of great demographic and economic burden that it is sustaining almost for three decades now.

Moreover with the exit of refugees there would be ample jobs and business opportunities that would be available to the local population. There is a strong and predictable possibility that the persistent high crime rate and incidence would markedly dwindle.

This hypothesis is based on the fact that the Karachi suburbs are also inhabited by the Afghan refugees who could be instrumental in destabilizing this society for having no interest or love or patriotic sentiments for this country. The Karachi mayhem and killing sprees and sporadic violence have their roots in ethnicity and race antagonism. The Afghans might be stoking that civil war by taking a part on one side or the other.

When we are talking about the refugees being accommodated in Pakistan then by all yardsticks those pro-Pakistani immigrants languishing in Bangladesh in shanty towns since 1971 justifiably deserve to come to Pakistan. These were the people who opted for Pakistan even under vey trying and dangerous conditions and are faced with unspeakable hardships ever since.

Some of them migrated from India during the 1971 crisis and supported Pakistan in face of the mortal threat of extinction to their lives. Yet they are living with one kindling hope that they may be owned and accepted by Pakistan one fine morning.

Pitiably the successive governments in Pakistan accorded a scant attention and little concern to the grave, inhospitable and inhuman conditions these Pakistanis have been living for four decades now.

They still love Pakistan and are waiting for the day when they would be allowed to migrate to Pakistan and settle here. If that happens that would be a very modest reward for their monumental patriotism and unwavering allegiance to Pakistan. This utter apathy and callous indifference is simply mind-boggling and inexplicable.

The Afghan refugees are totally alien. In contrast, the Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh have deep affiliation and fondness towards Pakistan. Afghan refugees would always remain alienated and cannot nurse a deep or even superficial love and liking for Pakistan.

The successive Afghan governments have been viewing Pakistan as an enemy country after partition of India. They lay claims on our territories adjacent to the border areas and even up to the Indus River.

Let us recall the chilling saga of Hijrat a side show of Khilafat Movement (1919-1924) to Afghanistan that took place early 20th century (1920-1921) and whipped up by a group of myopic and fire spitting religious demagogues. That is a story of grievous disaster and brazen betrayal by the Muslims from tribal areas and Afghanistan. Its narration entails a trail of tears.

Responding to the call of the religious preachers to migrate from Darul harab( where Muslims are not safe, meaning British India) to Darul Islam( a brotherly Muslim country where Muslims can be safe- in this case Afghanistan), thousands of families sold their land and property to migrate to Afghanistan, deeming it as a brotherly independent Muslim state. Afghanistan, instead of welcoming these uprooted Muslim migrants for the sake of Islam refused to absorb them and sealed her borders.

That resulted in unspeakable sufferings for the migrating Muslims. Countless died, became victims of fatigue and diseases, and turned virtual paupers with their money robbed or spent. It was a horrendous disaster. Some of those ill-fated migrants went as far as to the Soviet Union and settled there.

And in a reversed situation Pakistan has hosted nearly 4 million Afghanis allowing them education, jobs and all social services that are available to the Pakistani citizens. These Afghan nationals are as free in Pakistan as they were in their own country before migrating to Pakistan.

It is not to suggest that Pakistan should have treated the displaced Afghans in the same callous manner. But what is to be pondered is the attitude of the two nations though both are Muslims states: one repelled their Muslim brethren in adversity and the other embraced them.

If Afghan refugees are returned to Afghanistan then also the illegal immigrants from Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh whose number runs into thousands and who mostly live in Karachi should also to be sent back to their respective homelands.

The writer is a senior journalist and a former diplomat
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