This report is supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives
October 13, 2023
By Xari Jalil
Pekai Azizi Sadaat is trying her best to let the worst memories go, but each night, she says, she sees the ghost of her eldest daughter Maryam. And every day and every night she must go through the entire incident all over again. Of how Maryam in the wee hours of morning climbed the balcony and threw herself down from their fifth floor apartment.
Some workers were sitting downstairs having tea when they saw the girl crash down on the ground, and moan in pain. Their shouts and cries woke the neighbours and Maryam’s family began their day with this news. Before anyone could even call an ambulance she had died.
With two other little children to support, Pekai has to now look up to her other daughter to find some work – something very difficult for the Afghans who arrived after the Taliban took over in August 2021.
In fact Maryam’s suicide is directly linked with the fact that she could not find any work that paid enough to pay for food, rent and other necessities.
“When Maryam came to Pakistan she was hopeful of finding an opportunity to study and work,” says Pekai. “But there was no work. The girls applied twice at an English language centre but they could not pay the fees. Maryam found some work as a waitress in restaurant but she had to work long hours to earn a meagre salary.”
To make matters worse, the man Maryam had been betrothed to back in Afghanistan, kept making endless demands – especially for money. With a P2 Visa though Maryam was hopeful they would soon be out of Pakistan too, and go on to greener pastures.
Pekai’s story of Maryam ending her life in hopelessness of anything going right, is one that many other Afghans can identify with. While not everyone commits suicide, they do know the feeling of helplessness and no light ahead, especially those with families depending on them. Some brave it through like Nazo* who prefers to use this name when giving interviews to the media.
“The Afghan families in Islamabad specifically, find homes with a lot of difficulty,”
she says. Nazo’s husband was killed during conflict in Afghanistan, and now she has three young children to support. “People must make deals with the property dealer and pay a higher rent. I don’t know what the reason is but they seem to think that the Afghans who have come here are loaded with US dollars.”
And for those who don’t have visas, they face even more difficulty.
“Dealers don’t give them places to stay, while some of them threaten to make it a police case unless they pay them even more. Police raids are common for us and there are several times police have raided and carried out searches without any suspicion.
According to the UNHCR, an estimated 1.35 million displaced people with protection needs are living in Pakistan, most of whom are Afghan refugees holding Proof of Registration (PoR), as well as a small number of non-Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries. But Pakistan does not have a national asylum system in place, nor is it signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
In 2023, 10,971 Afghan refugees voluntarily returned to Afghanistan (96 per cent from Pakistan.
But on October 3, the Apex Committee on the National Action Plan, which was presided over by caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar, resolved to expel illegal foreign nationals and take strict action against their properties and businesses. A task force was also constituted to scrutinise fake identity cards issued to foreign nationals as well as their properties and businesses.
Now ruthless crackdowns are being carried out throughout the country to send back Afghans. And alongside these is the rise of ethnic bias towards the community – this is what they say.
Online particularly on platform X, the government has not been shy of flaunting its ‘milestones’: the capital city police and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting have been running a countdown and posting content while announcing the ‘number of days’ left for ‘aliens’ or ‘illegal foreigners’, threatening ‘arrest and deportation’. This is despite the massive 6.3 magnitude earthquake recently in Herat, resulting in over 2,000 deaths. But the caretaker government is still pushing its plan to evict by the end of October.
The rise of discrimination does not begin and end at there being a higher rent for Afghans than for Pakistanis, or no trust when it comes to giving jobs to them. It is embedded in many other things. Social attitudes for instance.
Thanks @CDAthecapital for your excellent performance. Please clear whole sector i-12 from Afghan encroachment and hand over possession of plots to their allottees who are waiting to construct their houses from three decades.#Develop_i12_Isb #Islamabad @anwaar_kakar
— i-12 Allottee (@i_12_Allottees) October 11, 2023
“When we came from Afghanistan, we thought, okay the Taliban do not care to educate themselves, they are ignorant, but Pakistan would be better,” says Nazo. “Otherwise why would we leave our own country? We thought that there was a system of democracy here, a proper police. But we were met with a different situation. The mindset about us (Afghans) was completely different.”
She says, “They say to us that there are too many of you. We have given place to 400,000 Afghans.”
Then she addresses the police. “If the police listens to me, I have a question. If you treat us like this, then what is the difference between you and a Talib? The Taliban also don’t care about humanity, or education or people.”
Researcher Saba Gul Khattak has worked extensively with Afghan refugees, and particularly women and girls. She sees how Pakistan has been treating them.
“Pakistan has been using afghan refugees as a pressure tactic against the Afghan government. Even before we used to whip up the issue of the refugees, threatening to send them back and did in fact send them back. This would put the Afghan government under a lot of pressure because they could not accommodate so many people.
With the Taliban it’s slightly different because they told Pakistan to close its borders and not allow anyone to leave Afghanistan. So I’m not sure if this pressure tactic will work.”
Khattak says the other aspect is that Pakistan is under pressure itself.
“We have economic issues in the country that affect everyone. And people perceive the refugees as a burden. Therefore Pakistan is now wanting the west to take up its responsibility for the refugees and new arrivals – many of whom the west had promised that it would but is now dragging its feet.”
She points out the hypocrisy of the rest of the world in telling Pakistan to follow international laws and conventions but the other countries are themselves not following them.
But Pakistan has not signed any international refugee conventions – not the one from 1951, nor the Refugee protocols of 1968.
“Pakistan is not allowing UNHCR to grant the new arrivals asylum because that makes them eligible for refugee status,”
says Khattak. “And the other countries are smartly saying that if the Pakistan government approves asylum we will give them asylum. So they are also basically denying and using it as a smokescreen to prevent refugees from coming to Europe and north America…or Australia.”
She says that none of the SAARC countries and also many from South East Asia have signed the protocol or the convention.
“Pakistan – because we have been using international laws and principals to give refugees status en masse,when they first started coming into Pakistan. After that it did not suit our politics.”
Former Senator Farhatullah Babar agrees with the viewpoint.
“This latest crackdown by the government is not the first time it has happened. It’s the umpteenth time. We have always used Afghan muhajireen as a political football.”
Since Zia ul Haq’s government till present whenever something happens in Pakistan the refugees are blamed, says the senior PPP leader.
“We closed the borders – why? Because the Taliban would get angry. Because the Taliban don’t want the people over there coming to Pakistan. So this crackdown, it is not the first time, and it will not be the last time. Pakistan has always taken Afghanistan as its fifth province.”
Babar tells of how the refugee situation in Zia’s time was thought of as being similar to the Muhajireen and the Ansar. “They were portrayed as ‘guests’ or our ‘brothers’. And so we never bothered to make any policy or legislation for them.”
Today, people like Pekai continue to suffer in their condition of statelessness. A young girl killed herself because of the growing hopelessness on both sides of the border for the Afghans. Like Maryam, for many others, nothing positive seems to be within reach.