The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has confirmed what this country has long known: Pakistan has hosted the largest refugee population in the world. Today this translates into 1.45 million. Most of whom are from neighbouring Afghanistan. Similarly, the voluntary repatriation of this group is also the largest.
Pakistan has been home to refugees for more than three decades. Yet the fact that so many generations later, they still maintain this official status speaks volumes about the state’s view of hospitality. As do the camps that many have been born and grown up in. If Europe can be legitimately criticised over its inhumane ‘jungle’ refugee camps — then, so too, can Pakistan. And while the UNHCR talks of voluntary repatriation, it was only in February of this year that the federal government spoke of not forcibly expelling refugees from within its borders.
To be sure, hosting such large numbers of refuges is not without challenges. Particularly given the unrest across the western front. The refugee question ought to have been at the forefront of the Washington’s mind; at least at some point over the last seventeen years of warfare in Afghanistan. Sadly, this has not been the case. Yet when it comes to armed conflict the lives of the most vulnerable civilians must be of paramount consideration. Thus the entire international community has failed Afghan refugees. From 1979 and again from 2001.
Yet where Pakistan could do better is at the micro-level. For the discrimination against this group did not end with the registration process. Indeed, many Afghans living here in this country talk about the brutal prejudice of the state. From the police upturning fruit and vegetable carts when no bribe is forthcoming. To teachers refusing to admit the children of refugees into their classes. And while it may be argued that such examples represent isolated incidents — the state’s treatment of its own ethnic minorities suggest otherwise.
After all, a nation that sought to restrict the freedom of movement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from FATA as well as Afghan refugees on the basis of security concerns seemingly knows a thing or two about unjust discrimination. Indeed, who can forget additional calls towards this end; all in the name of preventing the spread of polio? Or this Punjab government’s effort to implement racial profiling of Pashtuns; once again with a view to restrict freedom of movement.
Thus the time has come for Pakistan to understand once and for all that providing cold shelter is not enough; not when dignity is not part of the deal. This especially holds true when the state treats its own people like refugees in their own land. So, while the country should welcome recognition by the UNHCR — it must look forward to improving its track record. For all concerned.