A people in exile

AFGHANISTAN has asked Pakistan to postpone the closure of Afghan refugee camps along the Pak-Afghan border. Kabul has insisted that any decision about the future of Afghan refugees should be taken in accordance with the international law and terms of the tripartite agreement between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

Frankly speaking, Pakistan has every right to ask the Afghan refugees to leave. After all, it has hosted them for more than a quarter of a century. The Soviet invasion led to a massive influx of Afghan refugees into neighbouring countries. But the country most affected by the long years of instability in Afghanistan has undoubtedly been Pakistan.

While the country graciously accepted the burden of Afghan refugees and went to great lengths to make them feel at home, it has had to pay a price for this extraordinary hospitality. The presence of refugees has had a far reaching socio-political and economic impact on Pakistan.

So now if Pakistan has served the notice on the refugees, Afghanistan has no cause to complain. Besides, Pakistan has strong reasons for asking the refugees to leave. As Islamabad has made it clear, the refugee camps in sensitive border areas of Kurram and Bajaur Agencies are being closed because of ‘security reasons.’ Pakistan is facing a major insurgency problem in the region.

The Pakistan army has fought many a pitched battle against extremist groups in these lawless parts of the country. Some Afghan and US officials have repeatedly accused the Pak authorities of not doing ‘enough’ to nab the Al Qaeda remnants. So now if Pakistan has decided to address these complaints by closing down the camps, no one can accuse it of not doing enough to check the extremists.

However, the return of Afghan refugees to their homeland isn’t as simple as it looks. The refugees have been in Pakistan now for over 25 years. The majority of young Afghans were born in these camps. Some have moved out of their camps to live in big cities like Karachi. More importantly, they have come to see Pakistan as their home. This is why the issue needs to be treated most sensitively. It must be viewed as a humanitarian issue rather than as yet another ‘bilateral’ issue. Doubtless, the fiercely proud Afghans would be only too willing to go back to their homeland.

Unfortunately, however, Afghanistan remains as unstable and chaotic as ever. Despite the dramatic changes of the past four years, the country is still ruled by warlords and lawless gangs. Not for nothing Hamid Karzai is called the President of Kabul!

The issue of refugees therefore should be resolved between Afghanistan and Pakistan in consultation with the UN. A problem, which involves the fate of hundreds of thousands of people, can’t be rushed by setting impossible deadlines. Security and living conditions in Afghanistan have to improve before its displaced people could return. One way of doing that is by delivering on the aid the world community had promised Afghanistan after the fall of Taleban.

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