Pakistan eviction drive of Afghans residing in Pakistan is yet another pathetic and dehumanising face of our country. It’s policy in shambles just like its foreign policy choices. After hosting them (albeit not for free, millions had been taken from international communities in economic and military assistance), the syndicated images spluttered over local media shows them in hordes crossing the Pak-Afghan border, resembling zombies, their lives irrelevant and the pain of relocation doubled under the unwanted burden of the state. The thousands are crossing with their belongings – mostly plastic, steel and some timber – because they, according to the state, had overstayed their welcome.
The Pakistani state, which welcomed them initially when the Cold War’s dynamics benefited them in the name of Islamic jihad and assumption of the spirit of Ansar-e-Medina, has chosen to shun the same refugees in the most offensive manner possible. The recent manifestation of this disgrace can be seen in the arrest of Sharbat Gula: I prefer to call her the victim, Mona Lisa.
Most of these returning refugees found themselves in Pakistani camps 30 years ago and will be back once again in the Afghanistan camps. A cruel twist of fate. To add to the much-needed improvement of Pakistan’s international image, Sharbat Gula was recently arrested by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on Oct 26 from her house in the Nauthia area for alleged forgery of a Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC).
Nat Geo’s famed ‘Afghan Girl’, Sharbat Gula, was to be deported to Afghanistan after serving a 15-day jail sentence and paying a fine of Rs 110, 000 to a special anti-corruption and immigration court in Peshawar. The 15-day period ended yesterday, and she was duly deported. Sharbat Gula’s lawyer said she is the sole breadwinner of her family and is currently suffering from Hepatitis C.
The Pakistani state seems to have sprung into action a little too late, since bigger security threats than a widowed Afghan woman, like Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omer and Mullah Mansoor, all seemed to have been found living in Pakistan. Mullah Mansoor even travelled in and out of the country on an esteemed Pakistani passport. Arresting those insurgency leaders would have benefited Pakistan, but FIA instead chose to crack down on the helplessly poor and ill Sharbat Gula.
FIA office, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police and the lack of discretion by the judicial officer ended up harassing a woman who was then, and even now a face of helplessness. She was doing nothing except survive and get on with her life in a state which offered her nothing in return except a piece of land which is less volatile than the one she had left behind 30 years ago.
The media’s role in this eviction drive is the most disappointing and hypocritical one. I spoke to one Afghan student activist Khalid Amiri studying at Peshawar University. He regards the media and social media’s role very negatively in this case. His fellow students on the university campus rendered popularised puns like kala ba zay (when will you leave) directed at the Afghans, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, disappointing.
Unfortunately, the media and students is the section of society which is supposed to be the most educated and more informed on human and economic conditions of any society and, hence, more empathetic. One comes across this informed lot’s outrage the most when fleeing Syrian refugees are refused entry by the Western countries. Interestingly, most of them would also like to spread their wings in the future, at some point, and if given the opportunity, they would like to settle in a western country. It is no wonder that the Pakistani diaspora is the world’s 7th largest – nearly 5 million Pakistani are emigrants in other countries, according to the World Bank Fact book 2011.
Refugees are often called “intruders” and “potential terrorists,” and described as people who don’t abide by the laws of the country, according to our media and the establishment. During the Afghan jihad, certain political parties and establishment circles actively supported and encouraged the migration of Afghans for certain ends. Ironically, the maltreatment of the likes of Sharbat Gula and many poor Afghans is taking place in a country which just 67 years ago welcomed a big number of Indian Muslims after partition, and a big number of its citizens continues to seek — and to find — sanctuary in other parts of the world for economic reasons.
Another argument which we hold against the refugees now is that they are a burden on the state’s economy. How can a hard-working population which are running your local tandoor, selling fruits and vegetables, or providing cheap labour be a burden on the state economy? They are contributing to your economy. However, only 0.3 percent of the same patriotic Pakistani population pays income tax and files tax returns — one of the lowest ratios in the world. Around 7 million Pakistanis are estimated to be eligible to pay income tax, but only less than 0.5 million do so.
Pakistanis are not ready to pay a single penny in taxes and yet continue to enjoy whatever benefit the state offers. But they feel this surge of patriotism to make their country great, like Donald Trump, by asking for the refugees to be kicked out.
The government’s policy has not only resulted in higher incidences of harassment at the hands of security personnel reported by Afghan refugees, but has left the future of Afghans students, studying in professional and non-professional colleges, uncertain, since the government’s policy is only to give students a six months visa, not bearing in mind the course duration of these students.
After 1979 Pakistan facilitated the Pashtuns refugee populations to expand its influence in Afghanistan. However, now the Pakistani state ties the move to evict the refugees to a “border management program which is seen increasingly by many as not the burden of harbouring a long time refugee population, but using the refugees as a pawn in the Pak-Afghan and American nexus to Afghan peace. United States military and economic assistance to Pakistan reached its peak during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s and then post 9/11.” (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jul/11/us-aid-to-pakistan). The hosting of refugees was never without its benefits.
The government has relentlessly stirred up xenophobic sentiments against refugees by spewing hateful and misleading information, like insisting that they are a burden on the economy, a threat to law and order of the country and that getting rid of them is the solution to all the problems which Pakistan as a state currently faces. There has been no coherent refugee policy at the national level – unfortunately, only a harassment of the victims. (The article was first published as a blog in The Nation).
By Mona Aurangzeb
The writer is from FATA, a political and social commentator on Pak-Afghan region. She has a degree in human rights from University of London. Follow her on Twitter
THE PASHTUN TIMES