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Time for courageous decisions: Dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis

A collapse of the Afghan economy would produce an outflow of millions of Afghan refugees. Even as apprehensions persist about the deterioration in the humanitarian situation inside Afghanistan, there is also a chance to avert the impending refugee crisis through our enhanced engagement aimed towards the stabilization of the country.

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“When I go to Afghanistan, I realize I’ve been spared, due to a random genetic lottery, by being born to people who had the means to get out. Every time I go to Afghanistan I am haunted by that.” Khalid Hosseini

The situation hasn’t changed much as Afghanistan is at a crossroads yet again. The complete withdrawal of the US troops and international forces from the country, the collapse of the Ghani regime, the swift takeover of Kabul by the Taliban and the consequent economic meltdown of the country have presented the world with a serious humanitarian crisis. There are concerns about the spillover of the conflict into neighboring countries in the shape of terrorism and destabilization apart from the mass exodus of refugees. The unfolding Afghan tragedy in terms of magnitude and misery requires some courage and tough decisions.

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Analyzing the chaotic situation in Afghanistan

With 3.6 million internally displaced persons in Afghanistan and more than 5 million displaced Afghans in the neighboring countries, there looms another wave of refugees in the region and beyond. Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was already facing a humanitarian crisis as an estimated 18.4 million people (out of 35-40 million) needed humanitarian assistance. According to World Food Programme (WFP), the country is currently facing one of its worst droughts in years, a deadly resurgence of COVID-19 cases, and there were over 3 million internally displaced people even before the year had begun. Now the WFP has launched an emergency appeal indicating that almost 22.8 million people are faced with acute food insecurity with 8.7 million Afghans in the emergency level food insecurity category requiring a minimum of US$220 million per month to sustain the WFP operations.

The United Nations-led Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan (funding appeal) 2021, which was conducted before the Taliban takeover, totaled $1.3 billion to meet basic needs such as food, water, shelter, protection, and medical services (including those related to COVID-19). As of now, the appeal was only 40% funded, leaving an almost $ 800 million shortfall. These numbers paint a very grim picture as the winters have arrived and food prices are soaring causing fears of what the Secretary-General himself has called a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

Needless to mention the situation will affect women and children gravely who already share more than half of the casualties in the four decades of conflict. If wars didn’t kill them, hunger, disease and poverty will. The donors meanwhile are in a catch 22 situation as easing the humanitarian crisis may be tantamount to legitimizing Taliban led government. With the airlift of close to 95000 highly skilled and educated Afghans who served with the US military and NATO forces and with 300000 more expected to leave, it would be very difficult to run humanitarian services in Afghanistan.

The status of the Afghan economy was already not very encouraging and during the last 20 years; it relied heavily on foreign aid that constituted 43% of the GDP. The World Bank remained the largest single source of funding for Afghanistan’s development budget, financing up to 30% of the country’s civilian budget and supporting core functions of the government. As of December 2020, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) had extended around $500 million in loans and grants to Afghanistan.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also agreed to a $370 million COVID-19 relief program for Afghanistan in November 2020. Afghanistan also benefitted from the IMF’s disbursement of about $220 million under the Fund’s Rapid Credit Facility and debt-service relief of about $10 million under a special trust fund. Additionally, Afghanistan is eligible to receive a proportionate share of the recently agreed $650 million Special Drawing Rights (SDR) allocation that is designed to bolster the foreign exchange reserves of member countries.

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Will foreign aid help to diffuse the current situation in Afghanistan?

Given the developments in Afghanistan, the World Bank suspended funding for dozens of projects in Afghanistan on August 24, citing questions over the legitimacy of Taliban rule. Likewise, the IMF has also decided not to distribute to Afghanistan $400 million in SDR it is entitled under the $6000 billion global allocation. At the IMF, IMF Press Secretary Gerry Rice released a statement on August 18 that, “[t]here is currently a lack of clarity within the international community regarding recognition of a government in Afghanistan, as a consequence of which the country cannot access SDRs or other IMF resources”.

While IFI charters are explicit about the requirements for a country’s membership, they are largely silent on the issue of representation, leaving the decision to its member countries. Moreover, Afghanistan’s central bank also held $9.4 billion as foreign reserve assets. The Biden administration’s decision to freeze these assets is likely to put a further squeeze on the already-fragile Afghan economy. Using the question of foreign funding as leverage is a clear receipt for disaster especially for the already impoverished people of Afghanistan.

The situation calls for some creative and long-term thinking for collective benefit and gains after the endless war in Afghanistan. At the end of the day, a medium ground has to be achieved where some incremental and incentivized approach is adopted towards TTA led government. Lack of engagement by the international community would produce disastrous results. To find sustainable peace in Afghanistan, it is imperative to take stock of the new ground realities and help the people of the war-torn country.

What is needed on priority from the international community is a sufficiently funded humanitarian response to ensure that ordinary life continues in Afghanistan, especially for the Afghan people. Reviving the Afghan economy and meeting its urgent humanitarian needs is in the interest of the Afghans and the international community. Freezing Afghanistan’s resources will spark inflation, higher prices for food and other necessities and lead to refugee outflows and humanitarian disasters.

A collapse of the Afghan economy would produce an outflow of millions of Afghan refugees. Even as apprehensions persist about the deterioration in the humanitarian situation inside Afghanistan, there is also a chance to avert the impending refugee crisis through our enhanced engagement aimed towards stabilization of the country. Timely humanitarian assistance, reinforced by economic support and stabilization can help in preventing the vicious cycle of instability, displacement and exodus of refugees. The international community should demonstrate support and solidarity with the Afghan people at this juncture.

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The global community must join hands in helping Afghanistan

It is the right time for the global community to learn from the collective mistakes of the past for the sake of Afghanistan’s future and regional stability. The fact remains that the world has to respond to the impending humanitarian catastrophe in the form of internal displacement, poverty, hunger, disease and insecurity in Afghanistan and the resultant refugee crisis. As the Secretary-General said in his remarks to the Security Council: “Afghans are a proud people with a rich cultural heritage. They have known generations of war and hardship. They deserve our full support. The following days will be pivotal. The world is watching. We cannot and must not abandon the people of Afghanistan.”

Engagement and outreach is critical. The international community should demonstrate support and solidarity with the Afghan people at this juncture. Addressing the immediate humanitarian situation inside Afghanistan should remain a key priority. At the same time, the millions of Afghan people being hosted by neighboring countries need equal attention and assistance.

The international community must also shoulder responsibility and burden by expanding assistance to refugee-hosting countries.

Managing the fourth wave of Afghan Refugees- Need for a comprehensive Afghan Refugee Policy

On its part, Pakistan continues to host the second largest number of refugees in the world which includes four waves of Afghan refugees. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the launching of the US Proxy war led to the first wave of approximately 4 million Afghan refugees into Pakistan. The second wave followed the Soviet withdrawal and the outbreak of the civil war of the late 80s; and the third wave came in the aftermath of the US War on Terror after 9/11. The fourth wave of refugees arriving in Pakistan is a result of hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and the consequent humanitarian crisis.

This has confronted the government of Pakistan with a huge challenge of managing the additional burden of refugees particularly at a time when the economy is under strain and the threat of terrorism is not over. The issue of Afghan Refugees requires a moment of reflection, strategic thinking and policy response to avoid mistakes of the past that created serious security and law and order problems for the country, overburdened its infrastructure and the economy apart from adversely affecting the local culture and the society.

The country is currently accommodating more than 1.4 million refugees all across Pakistan. The undocumented/ unregistered refugees could run into hundreds and thousands despite the fact that Pakistan is neither a signatory to the 1951 convention nor its protocol. The status of Afghan citizens residing in Pakistan is also not clear as there is absence of any legal framework to cover them as refugees. Despite the legal lacunae, the Government of Pakistan has entered into a tripartite arrangement with UNHCR and the Government of Afghanistan for the management of Afghan Refugees and their registration.

Under the agreement, the Government of Pakistan allows inexhaustible transitory residence cards to UNHCR registered Afghan refugees. Since 25th May 2021, Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) has started issuing new biometric identity smartcards to Afghan refugees registered in the country. The new Proof of Registration cards (PoR- an identity card for Afghan refugees that grants temporary legal stay as a foreigner in Pakistan and protection against refoulement) are recognized proof of identity and include enhanced security features.

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Pakistan’s role in helping Afghanistan

It is commendable that despite COVID 19 and the economic hardship, Pakistan provided exemplary support to Afghan refugees. February 2020, saw the arrival of the UN Secretary-General in Pakistan to attend an international conference jointly organized by the Government of Pakistan and UNHCR to mark the 40 years of the Afghan Refugee situation in Pakistan. The event was held to garner international support and responsibility sharing in support of lasting solutions.

The National Action Plan which was developed after the Army Public School attack on 16th Dec 2014 required the formulation of a comprehensive policy to deal with the issue of Afghan Refugees, beginning with the registration of all refugees including repatriation. SAFRON had planned for the mapping of undocumented Afghans across the country. A repatriation plan was prepared by the Ministry of State and Frontier Region (SAFRON) under NAP agenda 19, in Feb 2020 which envisaged reaching an agreement with the Afghan Government for the phased return of the ACC card Holders. In the second Phase, the plan included a return of POR cardholders to Afghanistan on a Voluntary basis subject to the improvement of the situation in Afghanistan.

It is mentioned that the voluntary repatriation of Registered Afghans (PoR cardholders) was to be regulated under the Tripartite Agreement assisted by UNHCR. Now that the expected return and repatriation is nowhere in sight, there is a need for the development of clear policy for management of POR and ACC holders such as the opening of Bank accounts, access to education, movement within the country etc.

With the new influx of refugees in Pakistan, there is a need for the adoption of a comprehensive policy to deal with Afghan refugees. Such a policy must include a clear repatriation plan as per National Action Plan agenda 19. As per UNHCR Displacement Trends Analysis on Pakistan (New Arrivals from Afghanistan 1 April- 10 September 2021), 99% of the new refugees interviewed had no intention of going back to Afghanistan. The UNHCR report predicts that an additional 300,000 Afghan refugees will be arriving in Pakistan by the end of December 2021 which would require a rapid and coordinated response. With the economic crunch that Pakistan is faced with, it seems unlikely that any significant resources can be allocated to manage the new influx which may run into millions more as the situation worsens in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s Humanitarian Response Plan 21 though a good start, cannot serve as a policy document for managing Afghan Refugees as its major thrust is confined to natural disasters and COVID 19 only. It does contain a small section on assistance to refugees already residing in Pakistan and their repatriation plans need to reflect the current realities. It does not provide for the fourth wave of refugees into Pakistan since the US withdrawal. The PHRP calls for support by the international community in line with more equitable responsibility-sharing central to the Global Compact on Refugees.

The plan notes that the country has already suffered the severe socio-economic impact of COVID-19 and any additional pressures on infrastructure and service delivery systems would require greater international support to and burden-sharing with Pakistan. The fate of the regional Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR), endorsed by the Governments of the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan is also unclear due to changes on the ground.

With the new influx of refugees in Pakistan, there is a need for the adoption of a Comprehensive Afghan Refugee Policy (CARP) which may provide a road map to the Government of Pakistan and UN and donor agencies in handling the issue in a well-coordinated manner.

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The five pillars

The Comprehensive Afghan Refugees Policy (CARP) can be built around five pillars of

  1. Registration and data management
  2. Humanitarian support and Social Safety Net
  3. Education, health service and legal support
  4. Host Community engagement, protection and support
  5. Voluntary repatriation.

Needless to say, any policy on Afghan Refugees Management must also look at the severe capacity and resource constraints faced by the existing administrative arrangements at the Federal and Provincial levels. The recent influx of Afghan refugees also highlights the need for strengthening coordination mechanisms between the Government of Pakistan, provincial governments, SAFRON, Afghan Refugee Commissioner and UNHCR and humanitarian organisations on the ground.

The first pillar of the policy related to Registration and Data Management can be built around the ongoing validation exercise for refugees, commonly known as the Documentation Renewal and Information Verification Exercise (DRIVE). The Project will biometrically register around 1.5 million refugees during this year. The enriched and updated information can help Pakistan in better management of any new wave of refugees and would also benefit the country of origin in their resettlement and reintegration on their dignified return which must form an important pillar of the CARP.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan continue to have access to public health facilities, education and livelihood opportunities. Pakistan has also worked with UNHCR to provide cash assistance to extremely vulnerable refugee families including food assistance. Such initiatives must continue and become part of the comprehensive Afghan Refugee Policy.

As more and more refugees pour into Pakistan, the absence of laws and policies related to refugees, their status and management make things more difficult not only for the refugees, aid agencies, relevant departments within government but also the host communities which are adversely affected. The host communities are neither recognized nor treated on priority by the Government or the UN and aid agencies.

The Comprehensive Policy on Afghan Refugees must include this aspect and also provide for periodic impact assessment of Afghan Refugees on host communities and the country in terms of burden on the economy, infrastructure, law and order, terrorism, social and cultural norms. The host communities which have so far been out of the Afghan Refugee Management Dialogue must be included in the discussion on future policies. The Afghan Refugee Policy must take into account the needs of youth, girl child and women who have been at the receiving end of the conflict and refugees influx. This must include the youth of the host communities as well and focus on CVE and peaceful coexistence initiatives.

Nonaccession to the 1951 convention has its own merits and demerits but the country needs to benefit from other international instruments such as Global Compact on Refugees adopted in December 2018 which though voluntary in nature, does allow for some solutions to improve the situation. The compact provides for easing pressure on host countries, enhancing refugee self-reliance, expanding access to third-country solutions and supporting conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity. In line with the GCR, the country may benefit from greater responsibility and burden sharing “at an appropriate scale and in a timely fashion” from developed countries that have been party to the conflict in Afghanistan.

The GCR also advocates for a durable solution in the form of voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration but that is not possible unless there is a concerted effort at a multilateral level to resolve the conditions that lead to more refugees. The United States can lead a multilateral effort to give effect to the Global Compact and test its efficacy in dealing with the Afghan Refugee Crisis. This initiative can also be supported through countries in the region such as China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan which would ensure that the refugee crisis does not get out of hand and destabilize the whole region.

The Compact also proposes preferential trade agreements for goods and sectors with a high level of refugee participation in the labor force” to countries hosting a large number of refugees. Pakistan still stays deprived of any such benefits such as preferential market access to the United States.

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In conclusion, with an eye towards the stabilization of Afghanistan, there is a need for a time-bound, well-resourced and mutually agreed roadmap for repatriation and reintegration of Afghan Refugees which may form an essential part of the proposed Afghan Refugee Policy.

Humaira Rahman

The author is an alumnus of the World Trade Institute, University of Bern, Switzerland and National Defence University (NS&WC- 2018), Islamabad. She can be reached at humairaziamufti@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.