Bashing The Refugees

Bashing The Refugees

June 20th 2016, was the World Refugee Day, where Pakistan, a country that in the past had been taking credit for hosting one of the biggest refugee populations for several years, decided to celebrate in a slightly different fashion. The Government of Pakistan decided to publicly and officially own the campaign of hatred, harassment and demonization against Afghan refugees – launched by circles connected with the security establishment of the country. The irony is that the aforementioned hate campaign reached the highest pitch on a day (June 21) when Mr. Philippo Grandy, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, landed in Islamabad to express solidarity and support for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Mr. Sartaj Aziz, PM’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs, a man known for choosing his words carefully, threw caution to the wind and claimed that the refugee camps have become “a safe haven for terrorists”. A few months back Mr. Sarfaraz Bugti, Home Minister in the province of Balochistan and a known mouthpiece of the deep state had threatened to throw Afghan refugees out by force. Although the Pakistani media has been conservative in airing reports about the harassment and persecution of Afghan refugees, if one puts together the bits and pieces published in the print media and broadcast in the electronic media, it paints a horrific picture of repression and demonization.

Interestingly, the fascist-like campaign against Afghan refugees has never bothered to present any facts, figures and evidence about the involvement of these refugees in terrorist acts. No community in the world can claim to be totally crime free. And the Afghan refugees can’t be an exception to that. But if the historical experience of the last few decades is anything to go by, the Afghan refugees have been by and large a peace loving community and they have a very strong motive for that. They have been keeping their families here to keep them away from military conflict. Why would they indulge in activities which could threaten the security of their own families here?

Unfortunately, the beating of war drums has seriously polluted the atmosphere. The recent clashes at Torkham between the security forces of the two countries were used to create a sense of hysteria and hatred that made facts and evidence irrelevant.

Why have the Pakistani state authorities chosen to hunt down Afghan refugees at this point in time? The Pakistani crackdown on Afghan refugees is clearly linked with the summer offensive of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is synchronized with the military onslaught of the Taliban to convince Afghans and the world that the Afghan republic which is recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan has failed to protect Afghan citizens inside and outside their country. The sealing of Torkham was yet another step to reinforce this argument. The Pakistani mentors of the Afghan Taliban are going overboard to ensure the success of their protégés in the ongoing conflict. They are not shy of using unilateral coercion in favor of the Taliban.

On June 30th the one year extension in the stay of Afghan refugees was to expire. The stay was not to be extended further, despite the knowledge that that was not the most opportune time for their bulk repatriation. It is not difficult to imagine the consequences of the flood of refugee population returning to an unstable Afghanistan. It can be quite effective in reinforcing the Taliban military offensive to create chaos in Afghanistan. Interestingly, those who seem to be in a great hurry for the repatriation of refugees show no urgency when it comes to dismantling Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan which are being actively used in launching a war in Afghanistan. Similarly, the same Pakistani state functionaries who have been pontificating to the world for decades about the impossibility of imposing hegemony over Afghans by force hope to achieve hegemonic status by using military and political coercion.

Credit for the prolonged peaceful stay of Afghan refugees goes to the people of Pakistan who have shown great generosity in helping their brethren who had to leave their homes because of a war which was forced on them. A majority of the Afghan refugees stayed in the Pashtun belt of Pakistan where there was a natural sympathy for them for historical and cultural reasons. But the Pakistani state authorities have been consistently trampling upon the interests of refugees for “implementing their dubious agendas”.

Pakistan did not accede to the Geneva Conventions on Refugees (1951) nor did it sign the 1967 Protocol. On top of this, Pakistan doesn’t have any national law to deal with refugees. This complete legal vacuum has been deliberately prolonged so that there is nothing stopping the authorities in using or misusing the refugee issue at will. The first brazen instance of exploitation was to use the international aid for refugees to transform the ‘muhajireen’ (refugees) into the ‘mujahideen’ (holy warriers) in 1980s. This was in total violation of international humanitarian laws. The international community was complicit as the western powers were also obsessed with fighting communism and for them everything was fair in their war.

But the saddest part of it was that it gave a license to the Pakistani security establishment to continuously use Afghan refugees as cannon fodder for its adventures in Afghanistan. Taliban insurgents were the biggest beneficiaries of this policy. The myth that the Taliban could not be defeated in Afghanistan came into being because of the Taliban’s unlimited access to refugee camps in Pakistan for the recruitment of fresh fighters. They were defeated on a daily basis in Afghanistan and suffered huge casualties but the myth of their invincibility survived thanks to their safe havens and huge pools of fighters in Pakistan. And all of this has been possible because Pakistan is not bound by any national or international legal regime for dealing with refugees.

The bashing of Afghan refugees can have serious repercussions for the internal political situation of Pakistan. The ruthless crackdown and the hate campaign by the Punjabi dominated security establishment and its cheerleaders in the media could create a negative reaction among all peace loving Pakistani democrats, in general and among Pashtuns in particular. A glance over bitter polemics on social media in this regard makes it clear. Writing under the title of ‘A Pakhtun View’, a letter to the editor in daily DAWN, Mr. Riaz Daavi, an advocate from Mardan has hit the nail right on the head: “States may have their own interests, but the Pakhtuns on both sides are attached to each other. Indeed we are living in two different countries but still we cry and weep for each other…”


An earlier version of this article appeared in The Nation and is being republished here with permission.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Afrasiab Khattak

Author: Afrasiab Khattak

The writer is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.