Accessibility links

Afghanistan: Refugees Receive No Welcome In Pakistan

  • Charles Recknagel

Since last year 200,000 more Afghans have fled to Pakistan to escape drought and fighting in their homeland. But as they seek to join some 2 million Afghans already in the country, the new arrivals are getting a cold reception from Islamabad. In the second part of a two-part series on Pakistani and Afghan refugees, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at why Pakistan has moved from accepting refugees to resisting them.

Peshawar, Pakistan; 21 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- To any Afghan who fled to Pakistan in the last six months, the life of an earlier refugee like Durdee Muradi is something to envy.

Muradi, an ethnic Turkmen in his mid-thirties, came 15 years ago when Islamabad still welcomed the millions of people uprooted by the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the years of conflicts that followed.

Muradi's family took refuge at the Jalozai camp some 20 kilometers from Peshawar on the Afghan border. They began in a tent provided by international relief agencies. Then -- with more assistance -- they built up mud-brick outer walls and finally constructed a house with first a canvas, then permanent, roof. In the time Muradi has lived here, Jalozai has transformed in this way from a campground into an urban area of some 200,000 people with streets, bazaars, houses, and workshops.

But the newly arriving refugees have no such prospects. Some 80,000 of them who have come since September are now living on Jalozai's outskirts in a makeshift encampment where Islamabad has barred United Nations and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from providing assistance. This is in line with Pakistan's closing its border in November to new Afghan refugees, which officially makes the newcomers illegal immigrants.

Islamabad says it closed its border because it can no longer afford to take in Afghan refugees without greater international assistance. And it says the 2 million Afghan refugees already in the country have put an intolerable strain on its own struggling economy, as well as contributed to rising crime and drug use.

Pakistan's action is the latest sign of a growing international fatigue with Afghan refugees as the Afghan conflict enters its third decade. That fatigue has already seen international donations for Afghan refugee relief programs drop dramatically over the last 10 years. And it has seen Iran, another neighbor of Afghanistan sheltering some million-and-a-half refugees, also say it cannot afford to take in more people.

Yusuf Hassan, regional spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Islamabad, says that Pakistan is unhappy with the fact that today it gets only about half the amount of refugee aid it received in the 1980s when the Soviet-Afghan crisis was at its peak.

"There is what I would call an asylum fatigue in Pakistan and Iran because the host countries are saying that we no longer can cope with this particular problem on our own since the international community and the donors are not providing even half of what they were giving before."

He continues: "(The UNHCR) budget for Pakistan is about $12 or $13 million this year, and about 10 to 15 years ago it was $70 to $80 million."

The massive refugee assistance of the 1980s was provided largely by Western and Arab powers which also supported the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance. At the height of the Soviet-Afghan war, the region around Afghanistan was flooded with some 7 million refugees. In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal, some 4 million have returned to Afghanistan. But new refugees continue to flow out of the country, driven out by continuing factional warfare and, in recent years, a prolonged drought.

Now the arrival of more than 200,000 more refugees in Pakistan since September has created an aid emergency made worse by the fatigue of both the donors and host countries. The crisis sparked a trip by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Islamabad early this month during which he urged both donor countries and Pakistan to be generous in their response to the crisis.

Hassan says that thanks to such appeals, relief agencies currently have the resources to help new arrivals. But he says the larger problem is to convince Pakistan to cooperate with aid workers.

"We do have the resources. We have gotten $2.9 million since January, and many of the NGOs which work with us have also received some new funding. So resources at this particular moment are not one of our problems. The problem we face is a radical change in Pakistan's approach to Afghan refugees, which is making the work of aid workers and the people who support refugees very, very difficult at the moment."

One challenge for the UN is to convince Pakistan that any relief efforts for the new refugees will continue after the current emergency is over. Another is to assure that any new aid does not illegally go into the Pakistani economy instead of reaching the refugees, as much is reported to have done in the past. All this mistrust is the legacy of the massive flow of refugee aid which entered Pakistan in the 1980s only to dry up in the 1990s.

Signs of the aid dry-up are visible everywhere today at Jalozai. The camp has only a handful of poorly stocked medical clinics. And a visit to a school uncovers only a crumbling house with no windows and no source of heat for the winter.

Rohallah Ahmadi, one of the four teachers, says the school receives no outside support and functions entirely on the students' tuition fees. The 200 students -- aged 7 to 16 -- each pay 30 rupees a month, or about 50 U.S. cents.

"We don't get any outside help for our school. All the students are children of poor people and don't have high-paying jobs. They are all refugees."

Refugees who arrived years ago in Jalozai now say they are trapped in a safe haven which may look enviable to new arrivals from Afghanistan but which affords them only a subsistence lifestyle with no prospects of improvement.

Muradi works as a carpet weaver in a small courtyard workshop, one of hundreds within the mudwall labyrinth of the camp. He sits surrounded by a dozen other men bent over handlooms, weaving carpets according to simple stenciled patterns.

He says that the orders and materials for the carpets are supplied by a Pakistani businessman who sells them wholesale. The weavers themselves earn 40 rupees -- or about 60 U.S. cents -- per square meter.

Muradi says all the men would like to move to nearby towns and cities. But with their earnings they can only afford to live at the camp. Muradi said: "Rents for houses are very high in the cities. And we do not make enough money from our work. We can only afford to live in this camp."

That leaves refugees like Muradi, who has spent his entire adult life in Jalozai, dreaming of one day returning to Afghanistan even as he watches new refugees arrive. And he says if conditions in his area of northern Afghanistan ever improved, he would go home immediately.

The UN has not encouraged the refugees to return to Afghanistan in recent years, saying much of the country is too beset by fighting or drought. But it will offer assistance to those who want to go anyway. The assistance is $100 per family, a 100-kilogram sack of wheat, a plastic sheet, and a can for carrying water.

Last year, 75,000 refugees voluntarily returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan. The UNHCR helped another 135,000 voluntarily repatriate from Iran. But Hassan says that this year, the number of those who will go back is likely to be much lower.

The reasons, he says, are that Afghanistan's drought is raising a threat of famine in many areas, and that fighting continues in northern and central areas. And that, he says, continues to reduce the number of safe places to which the refugees can return.

XS
SM
MD
LG