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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Has the state abandoned Pakistani refugees in Afghanistan?

The continued failure of the government to respond to the anguish of stranded Pakistanis amounts to sowing the seeds of hostility and discord.

For several years now, tens of thousands of Pakistani tribesmen from Waziristan have been forced to live in the border provinces of Paktika and Khost. What caused them to abandon ancestral villages to seek shelter in a war-ravaged country is a sad story. And the more regrettable dimension of it all, is that the government in Islamabad has never, in more than 6 years, bothered to acknowledge or repatriate these families.

Conditions in the former tribal areas took a drastic turn when the old administration was gradually dismantled piece by piece and a new system put in place much to the annoyance of the tribes. The induction of the military in 2001 in the tribal areas was the beginning of the end of the old system that had been in operation for more than a century. As the situation worsened, military operations were launched to deal with an insurgency that had taken root in opposition to the government policy of a complete alignment with the broad US strategy in the area.

A full-scale military operation was launched in 2014 to catch, punish or expel all those who were suspected of being involved overtly or covertly in the resistance movement that was launched by the Pakistani chapter of the Taliban.

Read more: Pakistan to see fourth wave of Afghan refugees

Being compelled to leave

One terrible aspect of this operation was that tremendous collateral damage was being caused to both innocent people and their villages. When the situation became unbearable for them, they began to consider other options. For peaceful tribesmen, it was no longer possible to endure the suffering caused by bombs, raids, searches, arrests and the demolitions of their homes. Children in particular were the worst victims in the atmosphere of fear, insecurity, drones and destruction.

In desperation, they took the plunge and chose the insecurity of Afghanistan as a better alternative where they could live, ironically, in more safety. Hundreds of thousands began to migrate to the border provinces of Khost and Paktika from North Waziristan.

Many have since returned to their villages. But over 100,000 are still living across the border. These now homeless people believe their villages are either still unsafe or lack basic necessities like roads, water and electricity. They are waiting for some government assurances that these facilities will be provided before they can return.

Read more: How is COVID-19 outbreak impacting Afghan Refugees in Pakistan?

In Gulan camp in Khost province just across the border, these refugees live in terrible conditions. There is no clean water, no schools and no health facilities. They are completely dependent on aid or charity for their survival. The UNHCR has been trying to help in some ways but has not been able to take care of their food and rations, much less of their other needs. The refugees are desperately poor– diseases are rampant, despondency has taken hold and many have developed mental illnesses.

The government couldn’t care less

The most unfortunate part of this story perhaps, is that the government has never bothered to ascertain why so many thousands of families have resisted returning to their homes and villages. Not only that, even the elected representatives of North Waziristan have not shown any interest in helping to create conditions for their repatriation.

The only lesson that one can draw from this episode is that the repatriation of tens of thousands of people stranded in squalid camps across the border is a low priority issue– that too for a government that came to power on the promise of a new system of governance that guarantees safety, security, equality, justice and socio-economic emancipation.

Read more: Opinion: Forty years of Afghan Refugees: Effects on Pakistan & their repatriation

The continued failure of the government to respond is an inhuman act that alienates the people of the tribal areas. It amounts to sowing the seeds of hostility and discord that will haunt this area, its people and the administration.

Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade. The article originally appeared at Arab News Pakistan and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.