South Asia’s emerging refugee crisis

South Asia’s emerging refugee crisis

Afghan refugees are not just Pakistan’s problem

Since the Arab Spring, the international community has faced a migration crisis. The ongoing war in Syria alone has made almost five million people refugees. Of these, just over 10 per cent have sought refuge in Europe, with many more hoping to do so. Thousands have died in perilous Mediterranean crossings.

A recent deal between the European Union and Turkey has worsened matters from a humanitarian perspective, and revealed a significant appetite in Europe for returning refugees to the Middle East while the region is still in turmoil. The popular conversation in Europe has turned to the risk of Islamic State members entering Europe under the guise of refugees.

With Europe and the Middle East thus occupied, there has been less attention to the emergent refugee crisis in South Asia. According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, Pakistan is home to over 1.6 million refugees, mostly from Afghanistan. There are also around one million undocumented Afghan refugees in Pakistan, adding up to a total of more than 2.5 million. At the first World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey in May 2016, Pakistan, apparently influenced by the recent deal between the EU and Turkey, raised the issue of the Afghan refugees returning home.

Similar concerns to those in Europe about terrorists camouflaged as refugees have been increasing in Pakistan too. Following the brutal Taliban attack in December 2015 that killed more than 130 children at an Army public school in Peshawar, the Pakistan government has increasingly linked its internal security with the presence of Afghan refugees.

After the Peshawar incident, more than 22,000 undocumented Afghan refugees voluntarily returned home in January 2016. Since then Pakistan has revised its Afghan refugee policy. As a first step, the National Database Regulatory Authority has implemented a national move to document unregistered Afghan refugees—a gigantic task considering the presence of Afghan refugees in all parts of the country.


In addition, bureaucrats in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas issued Afghan refugees with a three-month deadline, which ended in May 2016, to relocate to Afghanistan. According to an estimate, 170,572 Afghan refugees were deported from Pakistan between January and October 2015.

Nonetheless, countries hosting large number of Afghan refugees—mainly Iran and Pakistan— have continued to talk about returning them to their homeland. With US troops due to withdraw from Afghanistan after 2016, there are many concerns about the future of Afghanis within Afghanistan and abroad, and the capability of the Afghan National Army to maintain peace and security. Countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, are figuring out their role in the future of Afghanistan beyond 2016 but, despite the uncertainty, see the situation as an opportunity to relieve themselves of their refugee burden.

Pakistan has been hosting the largest population of Afghan refugees for over three decades. After the Cold War and the civil war in Afghanistan, there were nearly 10 million Afghan refugees in the world, of which 5.8 million returned home between 2002 and 2015. Many of them had been living on extended visas in Pakistan since the Afghan–Soviet War during the 1980s. With ongoing instability in Afghanistan — civil war, Taliban rule and the international intervention —millions of Afghanis prefer to continue living in exile, with more than 2.5 million choosing Pakistan where they have settled with their families.

Afghanistan’s long history of instability has resulted in a constant flow of refugees to Pakistan. Between 1979 and 2002 more than eight million Afghans crossed the border. Although half of these are believed to have returned home after the Taliban regime collapsed, many more came to Pakistan because of ongoing and increasing insecurity in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration, keen to end the war in Afghanistan, heightened the conflict by increasing the number of US troops in the country. According to a UN report, 2015 was the Afghanistan’s deadliest year, with 3,545 civilian deaths compared to 2,790 in 2010.

Authorities in Pakistan regard the continued presence of millions of Afghan refugees as a serious threat to law and order and social stability

With insecurity rising and no signs of the war ending soon, the logic of pulling coalition troops out of Afghanistan so hastily is hard to understand. Because of the continuing war, terrorist attacks, weak rule of law and corruption, underdevelopment and a failed peace process, millions of Afghan refugees still do not see their homeland as being safe for their return.

Authorities in Pakistan regard the continued presence of millions of Afghan refugees as a serious threat to law and order and social stability and, for many years, have been looking at possibilities for sending them home. This time the government looks determined to return all Afghan refugees across the Durand Line—the 2,430-kilometre international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Because of delays in the process of registering Afghan refugees, the Pakistan government has extended their stay until December 2016. However, with refugees spread throughout the country, and in some cases holding Pakistani nationality, it will still be difficult for the government to first identify them and then return them home—a task being made even more difficult by the government requiring data on all Pakistani citizens to be verified.

Since the Peshawar attack, the Sharif government has developed a stringent refugee policy and, in January 2015, implemented a national action plan—of which registration of Afghan refugees is central—to counter terrorism.

This recent action follows the expiry in December 2015 of visa permits for Afghan refugees. Faced with multiple problems, the Afghan government requested the Pakistan government to extend the stay of legal and illegal Afghan refugees until 2020. Pakistan, however, is proceeding with its plan and has tightened security on the Torkham border, one of the major international border crossings between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This is not the first time Islamabad has decided to return Afghan refugees. When Afghanistan and Pakistan discussed the issue in 2012, the Afghan government said it was unable to take back refugees then because of the ongoing circumstances. Since then, the situation in Afghanistan has worsened.

Despite international intervention to try to develop suitable conditions in Afghanistan for the return of refugees, Islamabad has not changed its position. It is easy for the international community to say Pakistan is wrong to force millions of Afghan refugees to return to a country that is ill-prepared to deal with a huge influx of people. Afghanistan is an aid-dependent economy—and so is Pakistan largely.

Pakistan has borne the economic burden of Afghan refugees for decades. There is therefore a need to understand the rationale behind its decision to return them to Afghanistan. In hosting Afghan refugees in such large numbers, Pakistan has faced economic and security challenges. The international community therefore needs to look at the concerns of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, because both need support and mechanisms to deal with the refugee issue.

To begin, both sides should be encouraged to open a dialogue on a possible ‘migrant return deal’ that could also include a timeline. This would also influence bilateral relations in other spheres such as economic and security cooperation.

Featured image
A truck loaded with Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan in 2004 after years in exile pulls into the UN reception center in Kabul before bringing the Afghans back to their villages. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a postdoctoral fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, and author of Regionalism and Regional Security in South Asia: The Case of SAARC (Routledge, 2013).

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