By Zia Ur Rehman
KARACHI – Between the Soviet invasion of the 1980s and the rule of the Taliban in the late 1990s, many Afghans fled their homeland for the greener pastures of Pakistan.
Today, though, that grass is turning brown.
Citing hardships ranging from inhumane conditions in the refugee camps, to hard labour for low wages, to an increase in deportations, some Afghan refugees would rather return home than stay in Pakistan.”]
A recent visit to a makeshift refugee camp near Karachi made clear authorities have shipped a large number of legal and illegal Afghan refugees back to their native land.
The government has cracked down on refugees because of ongoing terrorist activities in Pakistan — especially attacks on military installations. That is the main reason authorities have deported so many Afghan refugees, said Haji Sohrab, the official representative of Afghan refugees appointed by the Afghan consulate in Karachi.
“Many Afghan refugees who do not have Proof of Registration (PoR), a document given to these refugees jointly by the government of Pakistan and UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), face serious action by the police”, Sohrab told Central Asia Online.
Indeed, police have arrested and deported more than 2,000 unregistered Afghans in the past two years, said Qari Hafeez, a leader of the Afghan Jirga in Karachi. Authorities have often raided houses in the camp and arrested their residents without proof, he said, adding that the majority of those deported have PoR cards.
Police deny arresting refugees with PoR cards. “We arrest the illegal Afghan immigrants under the Foreign Act, as well as refugees involved in crimes”, local police officer Shehzad Hussain told Central Asia Online.
Registered refugees who willingly return to Afghanistan receive an assistance, transport and reintegration package, including a grant of nearly US $100, according to Asif Shehzad, a UNHCR spokesman in Pakistan. That incentive has helped boost the numbers of voluntary repatriations, he added.
The crackdown on refugees comes even though they are allowed to stay in Pakistan until December 2012, according to a tripartite agreement among Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNHCR.
Azam Khan, 65, an Afghan refugee who came to Pakistan after the 1979 invasion by the former Soviet Union, said the situation has changed in the past four years. “Now Afghan refugees live in an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, and local industries are not hiring them”, he added.
Karachi no longer offers jobs, security, law and order, or peace of mind, said Jahan Sher, a Mazar-i Sharif native who is returning there. The economy of Afghanistan, meanwhile, has improved over the past four years, he added.
“Due to the prevailing insurgency in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the (former) North West Frontier Province, thousands of Pashtuns are coming to Afghanistan to find jobs”, a refugee from Nangarhar Province told Central Asia Online. Dozens of displaced families from the tribal areas of Pakistan live in Afghanistan, he said.
Afghans hailing from the bordering provinces of Kandahar, Nuristan and Helmand are reluctant to return to their homeland, though.
“A majority of the returning refugees belong to northern provinces like Mazar-i Sharif and Herat, where the security situation is better”, Arshad Khan, 45, an ethnic Pashtun refugee from Helmand, said. “But how can we willingly return to places like Helmand and Kandahar, knowing how bad the security situation is there?”
As part of the crackdown, industries are being forced not to hire foreign workers without documentation; that mandate has created employment problems for the refugees, Hafeez told Central Asia Online.
One industry that remains unaffected, though, is rug-making. Almost 60% of the refugees — men, women and children — are forced to make carpets by hand in the camp, residents of the settlement say.
“Refugees are employed in makeshift factories, and carpets woven by them are sold to local traders. They then export these carpets to a large number of countries, including Europe and the Gulf, in return for huge profits”, said Basir Ahmed Hotak, an Afghan journalist and social activist. “No labour laws specific to ‘refugees’ exist in Pakistan, so the exploitation of these workers is at a peak”.
They earn an average of Rs. 2,500 (nearly US $30) for weaving one square foot of carpet that the traders sell for US $350, he added.
The carpet industry of Pakistan employs many refugees – up to 80% of its workforce. As more Afghans are repatriated, the carpet-making industry will suffer, carpet traders in Karachi predicted.
Camp living conditions are deplorable, the residents complained. They argue that the refugee settlements in Karachi look like destroyed areas of Afghanistan. The settlements don’t meet basic living standards, and some don’t even offer safe drinking water, residents said.
“No government official has bothered to visit the camp to assess the situation”, Ahmed Bismillah Khan, a camp resident, said.
Most of the houses in the camp are made of mud bricks and there is not a single health facility, the residents said.
“Many refugees continue to suffer from severe diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, whooping cough and tuberculosis”, Bismillah said.
Residents also complained that no education is available; instead, barefoot children play in the streets most of the day.
“Though millions of dollars were directed from the UN and other organisations for the betterment of the Afghan refugees living here, the government seems to have turned a blind eye to the complaints from their refugee camps, where no services or facilities available”, Hotak said.