Atta ur Rehman Sheikh
[Development Consultant, currently working with National Disaster Management Authority, Government of Pakistan]
Pakistan has been host to millions of refugees and illegal immigrants. Following Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan accommodated over three million Afghan refugees on humanitarian grounds. There were several subsequent influxes of Afghans into Pakistan owing to internal fighting and wars in Afghanistan, particularly following the War on Terror in 2001, combined with intermittent droughts and the volatile security situation. Prior to Afghan refugees, Pakistan successfully managed seven million refugees from India at the time of independence in 1947. Currently, illegal immigrant population residing in Pakistan stands at 3.5 million. In terms of the treatment they receive, their situation is not dissimilar from that of internally displaced persons (IDPs), who are the product of development projects, natural disasters or internal conflict. Currently, the total number of IDPs in Pakistan, as per UNHCR figures, stands at 1.23 million.
However, in spite of continuing experiences of such magnitude, Pakistan, like other developing countries, has not been able to evolve comprehensive policy or laws to effectively address its refugee problem. Nor, despite being member of the Executive Committee of the UNHCR, is Pakistan a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. So far, therefore, the measures undertaken to manage refugees have, in general, been ad-hoc and on a case by case basis.
The constitution of Pakistan does not contain any provision for refugees or externally displaced persons. There is no policy regarding refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. Thus under existing laws all refugees and displaced people have the de facto status of illegal aliens, subject to the Foreigners Act of 1946, which does not allow any refugee or asylum seeker to be the citizen of the country.
One exception to the ad-hoc treatment of refugees was the management of the seven million people who migrated to Pakistan following the partition of India in 1947. At that time the government had established a refugee rehabilitation agency, namely Refugee Rehabilitation Finance Corporation, which performed the job of settlement and resettlement of displaced persons fairly well. All in all, that may be considered a success story.
Afghan refugees have generally been welcomed in Pakistan, both at the government and public level, ever since they began to arrive in Pakistan in late 70s. They were taken in on humanitarian grounds but, to date, ambiguity remains as to which law should be applicable to different issues and problems encountered in the course of their management.
During their time of residence, which now spans over 30 years, different arrangements have been made to manage them. Initially, their management was delegated to relevant provinces. Subsequently, the office of Commissioner Afghan Refugees, attached to Ministry of State and Frontier Regions (SAFRON), was created in 1980. It was delegated powers over the administration and management of Afghan refugees, which included registration of refugees, camp management, distribution of relief goods and channelization of international aid.
The total recorded entry of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has been 4.4 million and there are still 1.7 million registered and nearly one million unregistered Afghans in Pakistan. According to UNHCR, there are at least 84 Afghan refugee camps (refugee villages) in the country including 71 in NWFP (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), 12 in Balochistan and one in Punjab province. Out of 2.1 million, one million live in camps (refugee villages).
Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops and end of the Cold War, Pakistan government adopted ‘closed door policy’, which included closure and relocation of camps as well as repatriation of refugees. The Pak-Afghan border was officially closed in November 2000. Prior to that, when international aid ceased in mid-90s, Afghan refugees were allowed to move out of camps to earn livelihood for themselves. As a result, population of Afghan refugees in urban areas, as per official figures, rose to 1.44 million.
The repatriation of Afghan refugees has been a complex issue in view of the 1400 KM long porous border and unstable situation in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the massive repatriation in 1992 and subsequent spontaneous and planned return, most of the refugees were reluctant to go back because of the volatile security situation and limited economic opportunities. Given the situation, Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR reached an agreement in 2002 to support the gradual and organized return of the refugees through the voluntary repatriation program. Under the program, 1.6 million refugees returned in 2002, 340,000 in 2003 and more than 380,000 in 2004 from Pakistan. This was attributed to presence of ISAF, which established some kind of peace and security, which thus created space for economic activities. Besides, decreasing opportunities of employment in Pakistan also encouraged them to repatriate. The process of repatriation slowed down afterwards, as many Afghans again began migrating to Pakistan, because of increasing insecurity and lack of basic facilities in their home country.
The tripartite commission reviewed the situation and, realizing the stark realities on ground, decided to take a census of refugees in order to formulate a comprehensive future strategy for Afghans living in Pakistan. Conducted in 2005, the census provided some reliable figures about Afghans living in Pakistan, estimating them to be over 3 million, with 42 per cent living in camps and 58 per cent outside the camps. Over 81 per cent were Pashtuns, with much smaller percentage of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen and other ethnic groups. Other findings of the census indicated that a significant proportion of the refugees were born in exile and that a majority, 82 per cent, of the registered refugees, did not want to go back to Afghanistan because of lack of security, shelter and livelihood.
In view of the situation, the Pakistan government and UNCHR signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2006, according to which the refugees were to be issued identity cards, valid for three years. Those who did not get themselves registered would be considered illegal immigrants. At the same time, UNHCR would continue to assist voluntary repatriation. After the passage of this period of three years, remaining Afghans would undergo screening for identification of those who might be in danger on their return and after assessment they would be provided with security and protection. Proof of Registration (PoR) issued under the agreement were to expire on December 2009; however, the government extended the validity till December 2012, though it continued to press for their repatriation.
Besides the Afghan refugees there are, according to official figures, 3.5 illegal immigrants in Pakistan. The illegal immigrants belongs to 76 different nationalities, majority includes Bangladeshis, Burmese, Arabs, Iranians, Africans, Chinese, Tajiks, Uzbeks, etc. Given its limited success in deporting or repatriating them or in providing them any kind of legal status, the government created a separate mechanism with the establishment of the National Alien Registration Authority (NARA) under the Foreigners’ (Amendment) Ordinance of 2002. Currently headquartered in Karachi with eight branches within the same city, NARA is in the process of expanding its outreach by setting up branches in other provinces as well. The authority has been mandated to register the aforementioned non-Afghan immigrants and to provide them with PoR, entitling them to reside and work in Pakistan. Since its establishment in 2002, over 150,000 illegal immigrants have registered themselves with NARA. The response to register has been slow because of distrust among communities of illegal immigrants, who fear that registration may ultimately lead to deportation.
Since 1947 numerous policies and laws have been formulated and enacted for different sectors, but legislation concerning refugees, displaced, asylum seekers and migrant workers has never been a priority. Absence of a clear policy, legal framework and effective and consistent management of refugees by the relevant institutions remain critically unresolved issues for Pakistan. Given the complexity of the problem and the millions of human lives involved, there is a dire and urgent to find effective measures to cope with it. The establishment of NARA is but one step towards the solution. A great deal more yet remains to be done if we are to effectively resolve the predicament of Afghan refugees and illegal immigrants. The establishment of effective ways and means of managing refugees is necessitated not only by the existing problem but also by the very real possibility of future influxes, whether caused by conflict or natural disasters.