Quetta: Surkhab Refugee Camp is an hour drive from Quetta, the capital of the southwestern Balochistan province. Not so long ago, it used to bustle with Afghan refugees that had fled to Pakistan in the wake of Russian invasion to Afghanistan in the eighties.
Later Talibanization of Afghanistan in the nineties brought more refugees to this camp. Still more came after Sept 11, 2001, following the American war against al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan.
The camp that has been home to generations of Afghan refugees is now mostly deserted, its dusty streets and adobe mud houses echoing desolately as an incessant wind blows through this land.
Sarwar Jan, 48, a mud-brick builder is surrounded by his little children. Two of his teenage children help him as he fills the brick-blocks with mud.
Jan is one of the Afghans who came to Pakistan during Russian invasion in the eighties. He and his family have lived here at Surkhab for the last thirty years. Now old and gray, Jan had come here from Arghandab district of Kandahar province when he was only 18 years old.
“I sell each break for Rs 1 [0.1 US $],” he says. “I can mold some 500 bricks daily out of this muddy heap.”
Selling mud-bricks is how Jan feeds his family of nine. Though Jan is not bothered by all the hard work he does, he worries that the Pakistan government would push him and other Afghans back to Afghanistan.
The Pakistan government stance towards Afghan refugees has hardened since 2001, when Afghans were pushed out of refugee camps for fear that the camps may harbour terrorists.
The Peshawar carnage at an army school that left around 140 children dead in December 2014 has resulted in a fresh resolve on part of authorities to push refugees out of camps to return to Afghanistan. The attack was claimed by the Tehrik-e- Taliban Pakistan. Later the TTP head Mullah Fazlullah, based in the border regions of Afghanistan, vowed the TTP would keep attacking strategic points in Pakistan in reaction to arrest of Taliban and their killing in fake encounters.
“There will be zero tolerance against non-registered Afghan refugees”, Sarfaraz Bugti, Home Minister Balochistan, told News Lens. “It is a very important issue to resolve. We will discuss it [the Afghan refugees’ issue] in the cabinet meeting to have a plan for the return of refugees back to Afghanistan as soon as possible.”
Sarwar Jan, however, is not ready to leave. He is worried about the security situation back home. “I am in contact with my relatives in Afghanistan. They [relatives] always complain about the poor security situation.”
Jan says his beard is a problem because it makes him look like the Taliban even though he has never had anything to do with them or any other militant groups in the past.
Just days after the Peshawar attack on Dec 16, Interior Minister of Pakistan Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told a press conference that terrorists hide in Pakistan in the guise of Afghan refugees.
“As Pakistan’s sovereignty is our priority, operations will be launched against refugees who are unregistered,” he said.
Some 200,000 Afghans have lived in slums around the capital Islamabad for the last 12 years and they have been registered, said Sarfaraz Bugti. “Provinces have been asked to take the same steps: Searching Afghan refugees populations and checking if they are registered.”
He said the refugees should be restricted to camps as the international community had not been funding the UN refugee agency United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist refugees and they are now scattered across the country in search of jobs. “Some 500 unregistered men were arrested from Islamabad alone,” said Bugti.
Wali Muhammad, 75, from the Faryab district in Afghanistan, told News Lens that the security forces had arrested his 18 years old son Laal Muhammad in a search operation. “They took him away when he opened the door for the security forces,” said Muhammad, waiting in front of Shalkot Police Station in Quetta where his son is in lockups. “My son does not have an Afghan refugee registration card.”
He says, “My son, a Hepatitis B patients, is a laborer in the vegetable and fruit market. He has been in the custody of police for the last 22 hours. We are even not allowed to see him.”
A police source who was a part of the search operation told News Lens on condition of anonymity that some 700 Afghans were arrested from Zehri Town and Barech Town of Quetta and most of them were released after confirmation that they were registered.
Over last three decades, Pakistan has hosted nearly 4 million refugees. The number of refugees living in Pakistan is about 1.5 million now, while 3.8 million Afghans have returned to Afghanistan since 2002 under UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation program – the world’s largest refugee repatriation operation.
“Around 37 per cent of registered Afghan refugees reside in refugee villages and 63 per cent outside,” Qaiser Khan Afridi, an official for UNHCR, told News Lens Pakistan. “The number of repatriating refugees in 2014 has been low due to the transition in Afghanistan (presidential elections and withdrawal of international troops) and continuous internal displacement as a result of armed conflict and human rights violations.”
Afridi said that Afghanistan’s absorption capacity has been stretched due to lack of infrastructure and the fact that one out of four Afghans currently in Afghanistan had been previously displaced and needed to be reintegrated.
“The government is trying to absolve itself of responsibility and diverting attention from a serious intelligence and security failure in the Peshawar Massacre by transferring blame to others,” says Bushra Gohar, Awami National Party’s vice president and a former legislator.
She said what should have been a crackdown against known Taliban and their supporters with a clear and demonstrated policy shift, the government turned it into an opportunity to harass Pakhtuns in general and Afghan Refugees in particular – already victims of the State’s flawed policies and the Taliban.
Ariane Rummery, Spokesperson for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told News Lens, “At the end of 2012, there were close to 2.6 million refugees from Afghanistan hosted by 82 countries. 95 per cent of them are based in Pakistan and Iran. Outside the immediate region, Germany hosted the largest number of Afghans – an estimated 31,700 people.”
“It is important to recognize that many refugees have returned to Afghanistan,” said Rummery. “During last 12 years, nearly 5.8 million Afghans have returned home and UNHCR has assisted 4.7 million to go back. This is the largest voluntary repatriation program in the world and the number of returned Afghans represents nearly a quarter of the population of Afghanistan.”
She said returns to Afghanistan were, however, linked directly to improved access to socio-economic opportunities and developments in key sectors such as health, education, training, livelihoods, land allocation, water and sanitation. “In short, the scale and complexity of the challenges ahead require long term engagement and strong support for the development programs impacting key reintegration challenges.”
Ayesha Siddiqa, Pakistan based independent social scientist and author of Military Inc, told News Lens that Afghan refugees in Pakistan were part of a historic relationship between the two countries. “Considering the nature of porous borders and connection of Pakhtuns on both sides, people have always migrated for better opportunities especially during war and conflict,” she said.
She said those living in the camps may be reluctant because the war in Afghanistan was not over yet. “After American withdrawal, the fear of a civil war breaking out deters people from making the move. They don’t have the confidence (in the security situation).”
Ayesha said: “I am not too sure about the Afghan-Taliban connection [with Afghan refugees] but there is certainly some elements that are linked. Do not forget that Taliban are part of the Pakhtun tribal system. But at another level I don’t think Pakistani security establishment has thought deeply about the [Afghan] refugees. The government would like people to leave but has never made it part of its policy to push them back to Afghanistan.”