Quetta: In Pakistan’s border province of Balochistan, Afghan refugees are impeding a long-delayed provincial census, say provincial ruling parties.
Pakistan’s decision to repatriate Afghan refugees is at the heart of increasingly sour relations with neighbouring Afghanistan. Pakistan says refugee settlements are havens for terrorists. In Balochistan the departure of refugees could determine the balance of power between local political parties based on their demographic dominance.
A census is conducted every 10 years in Pakistan. The last national population census was held in Pakistan in 1998. The next census – the sixth since Pakistan became independent – was scheduled to be held in March 2016 after 17 years but was postponed indefinitely by the Council of Common Interests (CCI) – a constitutional body that resolves power sharing disputes between the federation and the provinces.
The CCI cited reasons related to security and presence of Afghan migrants that would upset the ethnic ratios locally. Both reasons are relevant to the insurgency in Balochistan that hosts a sizable population of Afghan refugees.
85 percent of Afghan refugees in Pakistan are Pashtuns, while the remaining 15 percent comprise Uzbeks, Tajiks and other ethnic groups. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa hosts the largest Afghan refugee population followed by Balochistan, Punjab, Sindh, Islamabad and Azad Kashmir.
In Balochistan, the Baloch and Pashtuns are the two major ethnic groups, followed by Punjabis, Hazaras and Sindhis. The Pashtun political parties that favour Afghan refugees’ stay because of the shared ethnic and blood bonds want the census to be held immediately. They have criticised the Council of Common Interests (CCI) – a constitutional body that resolves power sharing disputes between the federation and the provinces- for delaying census for the last four months.
On the other hand, the Baloch political parties, who see Afghan refugees tipping the demographic scale in favour of the Pashtuns, want refugees gone before census are held.
Malak Wali Kakar, Central Senior Vice President of Balochistan National Party (BNP) that is staunchly opposed to the presence of Afghan refugees in the province, said his party was in favour of the census.
He told News Lens Pakistan that it was the only way “to get the rights of people” from the federal government, but with “3.5 m Afghan refugees” still living in Pakistan and half of them in Baluchistan, the limited resources of the province were under strain.
“Refugees are a burden on our economy,” said Kakar.
“As it is, we have limited resources to meet the needs of our own population. Before holding census, the government should conduct a referendum on the subject of Afghan refugees in the province. If people want refugees to be counted in the census, we will have no objection.”
Kakar said his BNP was against all foreigners: “We would not accept any census in their presence, no matter which ethnic group they belong to – Baloch, Pashtun or any other.”
Kakar said a big number of refugees in Balochistan did not live in refugee camps and had made fake citizenship documents to avoid getting registered with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the government.
Census has always been a contentious issue in the ethnically divided Pakistan. While the controversy over Afghans swelling the Pashtun ethnic ranks in Balochistan has been there for long, the lack of security in Baloch territories making them less accessible for the census is also seen as an obstacle that could affect Baloch demographics. On their part, the Pashtun nationalist parties say that their numbers have been understated in census past, held under governments led by Baloch political parties.
Kabir Afghan, a central committee member of Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP) said according to the Constitution of Pakistan, everyone with an identity card and a domicile has the right to be counted in the census.
He said before 1971 the population of Pashtuns and Baloch in the province was equal. But the census that year held under Baloch leadership, he said, changed Pashtuns into a minority.
“According to that census, figures for certain divisions and districts were bloated and were shown as Baloch populated areas,” said Afghan.
“[As a result] national, provincial and senate seats increased for the Baloch. In the same way, Baloch dominated on provincial political power and economic opportunities through bogus census.”
He claimed the Pashtun population in the province was more than the Baloch.
“This fact will be borne out by fair and transparent census in Balochistan,” said Afghan.
“The Pashtun population will emerge as the majority. It is for this reason that the Baloch nationalists are creating hindrances in the way of transparent census so that they can protect and maintain a fake majority in the province over a Pashtun minority.”
Abdul Khaliq Baloch, Provincial General Sectary of the National Party (NP), one of the political parties in the ruling coalition of three, said the presence of Afghan refugees and the critical law and order situation made a census operation unacceptable.
“To hold the census in these circumstances would be a conspiracy against the Baloch nation because it would convert the Baloch into a minority in their homeland,” Baloch told News Lens Pakistan.
“Due to the insurgency, 40 per cent of the population of Makran division has been displaced. A similar situation exists in other parts of the province such as Awaraan, Kohlu and Dera Bugti. If the census is conducted without counting the displaced, the population of Baloch will diminish.”
He said millions of Afghan immigrants reside in Balochistan.
“They have a negative impact on every field of life in the province but the Pashtun nationalists have always supported them to bolster population figures and vote bank. We demand all Afghan immigrants be repatriated to their home country as soon as possible.”
According to the UNHCR, there are 3,20,000 registered Afghan refugees in Balochistan. Since 2002, UNHCR has helped repatriate 700,000 refugees from the province to Afghanistan.