Last month, as every year on or about June 20, we mark the World Refugee Day. I have attended many such events in Pakistan having worked with administration and research in the field for over a decade. Sadly, little new has happened. True, four million Afghans have returned. But close to three million are still in Pakistan; an estimated one million undocumented Afghans and 1.7 million registered, whose Proof of Registration, or PoR, cards are up for renewal at the end of year. At the seminars last month, the content of the speeches were often repetition of issues taken up in earlier years.
Of the world’s well over 10 million refugees (excluding internally displaced persons, who are growing in number), over a quarter are Afghans, and together with the Palestinians, they are much over half of its refugees. Pakistan is the world’s largest refugee-hosting country. Many refuges are “warehoused”, as the United Nations Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, call them, kept in camps surviving on rations or living in city slums or poor rural settlements. True, some live well. Some go to school, even university, and they can look forward to better future lives than what they and their parents have had thus far. But they constitute the select few.
One of the main speakers at a seminar I attended had little to say, but to petty and be sorry for the refugees. Sympathy is good, but not good enough - and some don’t want to be looked down upon that way. The speaker represented a large international NGO, which was not itself doing work in the refugee sector, she said, but I think they may be looking for funds in that “industry”, a major income area for NGOs in Pakistan.
The refugees have no say and influence over the assistance they receive. Several Afghans said so at the seminar, with tears in their eyes. They live at the mercy of donors and NGOs, and remittances and support from relatives abroad, if they are lucky. Most of them have to wait for crumbles from the high table. I am glad that my NGO friend showed compassion, provided it was not just for the occasion. But the refugees deserve more than that. They need action, direct help and policies and plans that give results.
In the 1960s and 70s, Tanzania’s founding President Julius Nyerere often spoke and wrote about the way the West treated developing countries, and I quote from memory: you look so good when you say you are sorry for us and petty us. But you should “climb down from our shoulders” and give us fair prices, fair relations, fair treatment and fair solutions.
The Afghans must be treated fairly and with respect. Recall, too, that the Afghan refugee tragedy from 1979 onwards was caused by foreign interventions in Afghanistan, first by the then Soviet Union, and now by the USA, Nato and other countries. In between, the country was left to fight a civil war, much caused by the foreign powers, and then came the Taliban. The current war and occupation, under the veil of “war on terror”, is caused by foreign powers for geopolitical control reasons. The highest price is paid by the Afghan state (and its neighbours) and the people living in the country, and also by those who have had to flee and become self-exiled and refugees.
No, I don’t think Afghanistan would have been entirely peaceful and prosperous. But could it be worse, if the foreigners had left them alone and given peaceful support and development aid, not military “help”? I hardly think so!
No, I don’t blame all shortcomings on the international community, UNHCR, UNOCHA, UNDP and the other UN agencies, with the large implementing NGOs and sometimes also government agencies. (As a matter of fact, I am often impressed by UNHCR’s work, if they are given funding.) But I do blame the international donors and their international diplomats and civil servants for much of the misery. I question their truthfulness in trying to understand the problem at hand; their term of service is too short; they rarely have time to feel the compassion my NGO friend showed in her speech at the World Refugee Day seminar. They are not bad people; it is the structures they work in that are insufficient. This leaves us with two options only, as far as I can understand:
First, that the host country, i.e. Pakistan, with the Afghan refugees here sounds the alarm to wake up the slumbering diplomats and UN staff, who will then alert their home countries’ capitals and the UN headquarters. There are many NGOs, too, dealing with refugees and human rights that can be spokespersons.
Second, there is the possibility of engaging ordinary people in the West for action and results, again with the Afghan refugees there, in contact with those in Pakistan. They will then alert not only the NGO headquarters, but also the numerous interest organisations, youth groups, political parties, labour unions, women’s organisations, and all other good people. Yes, because good people do exist and there are many courageous and principled people in this world if they are called upon and mobilised.
In this article, I have pointed out the principles for practical action, emphasising that refugees - Afghans, Palestinians, Somalis, and so on - are not lesser people than you and I. They need monetary help; many should be given war compensations, too. Funds, yes, but first of all boldness is needed in defining the aims with practical realism so that solutions can be found. The solutions must primarily be acceptable to the Afghans, Afghanistan and to the Pakistanis and Pakistan - and the Afghan refugees themselves.
The profiles of people show that half of the Afghans in Pakistan were born in the country. They know no other land; maybe they are Afghans at heart, or so they say, but they are de fact more Pakistani than foreigners. It is not yet Pakistan’s policy to grant them citizenship. But sooner or later most of them will probably get it, or they are granted permanent residence permits. The international community should compensate Pakistan so that it can afford to do this.
There is a large number of Afghan refugees getting old now, after having lived a generation in exile. They maybe, a quarter of all the Afghans in Pakistan and many are likely to have health problems, needing regular medicines that they can get in Pakistan, but not everywhere in Afghanistan. Most of this group, too, is not likely to leave. They may wish to go home and live the remaining years of their lives there, but it will remain a dream for most of them. Pakistan should find solutions for this group, too, and grant permanent residency, with international compensation to cover for care and just a decent time for proud and sad Afghans. In a decade or two, they will all be gone anyway.
Then, Pakistan will remain with a manageable number of some hundred thousand Afghan refugees. Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan can be normalised. Many Afghans may want to come to Pakistan for education, business and work, without being refugees. There are tens of thousands of Pakistanis working in Afghanistan. The trade balance may be in Pakistan’s favour, but not if other “war on terror” factors and other aspects are included about the prolonged wars in Afghanistan and spill over into Pakistan.
Nothing of this is worth discussing, until the international community has decided to find a solution and pay for it, including America and Russia in particular, Saudi Arabia, the Nato countries and other foreign countries in Afghanistan today. When the number of foreign forces in Afghanistan is drawn down, funds should be channelled to solve the protracted Afghan refugee crisis. Pakistan, too, needs a solution.
I hope that when we in five years mark the World Refugee Day, my NGO friend and the Afghan refugees will celebrate that solutions have been found. We should feel compassion for the needy people, and there will still be Afghans who need help. But the majority should either have been naturalised to become Pakistani citizens or permanent residents - and many should have returned to Afghanistan, but only if realistic conditions exist for sustainability there.
The refugees should have a choice and be supported in getting a decent life so that they can contribute to their families and the country that will be their homeland. We must always remember that they became refugees by force, not by choice. It is a scar on the international community that we still do not have realistic plans for how to end the Afghan refugee tragedy. It will be economically cheaper to solve the refugee problem now than to prolong it even further.
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.