June 20 is marked as world “Refugee Day”. The world is going through unprecedented economic, political, and social upheaval. According to UNHCR “Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country”. While the soaring commodity prices are making it difficult for people to earn basic livelihood during the ongoing global economic downturn, the displaced people are suffering the most.
In August 2021, the Western-sponsored government in Afghanistan collapsed and the Taliban took over the reins even while the U.S. troops were in the last phase of their withdrawal after mission creep. Many feared violence and persecution under the new regime, which led to a fresh wave of displacements — also driven by the growing uncertainty about the future of the country. Thousands were displaced internally while even more fled to adjacent and non-adjacent countries.
Pakistan is among the top countries hosting the most number of refugees. According to UNHCR, Pakistan hosts approximately three million Afghan refugees, including 1.4 million with Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, some 800,000 with Afghan Citizen Card (ACC), and around 775,000 undocumented Afghans. As the situation deteriorated in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, it was estimated as many as 700,000 refugees would enter Pakistan. The potential cost to set up camps and feed the massive number was estimated to be $2.2 billion.
Accessing non-food items, shelter, health, education and livelihood at times is difficult for refugees. In addition, lacking identity document makes them more vulnerable. It may deprive them from acquiring basic services such as health, education, and banking, and at times they would not be allowed to cross borders.
In Pakistan, the process of registration was first initiated in 2006-07, with the issuance of PoR cards followed by verification after two years along with the issuance of new cards to erstwhile un-registered refugees. In February 2022, the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with the assistance of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) concluded the Document Renewal and Information Verification Exercise (DRIVE).The new smartcards are secured, comprising biodata, valid until 30 June 2023. During DRIVE, the data of 1.25 million Afghan refugees was updated. The number of newly issued cards reached 700,000. It included 200,000 children under the age of five registered by refugee parents. The new smartcards provide better access to services such as health, education, and the banking system.
The Afghan refugees are scattered all over Pakistan in different refugee villages. It is estimated that as a minimum 31 percent live in refugee villages, and about 69 percent live in urban and rural areas. According to the International Organization of Migration (IOM), on average 16 percent possessing Afghan Citizen Card (ACC) living in refugee villages, out of them 31 percent have temporary, and 52 percent cent earn less than the minimum wage with an average family size of six.
It is reported that more than 250,000 Afghans have arrived in Pakistan since August 2021. The province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa hosts the vast majority of Afghan refugee which is around 52 % followed by Baluchistan, Punjab, Sindh and Islamabad. According to the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, more than half of the refugees are in the category of extremely poor. Of all the registered refugees, some 54 percent are children and 22 percent are women, while 15 percent are people with disabilities
The key challenge for the new arrivals ranges from accessing shelter, livelihood, food, medical assistance, and education etc. The host countries with help of international agencies have had been assisting these people for decades. From 2002 to 2021, almost 4.4 million Afghan refugees have voluntarily repatriated to Afghanistan, facilitated by UNHCR. In 2021, the process of repatriation was slowed due COVID-19 followed by the political uncertainty in Afghanistan. However, refugees seek a lasting solution, that lies is repatriation to country of origin. Under its voluntary return program, UNHCR provides cash assistance to volunteers returning to Afghanistan for return and reintegration.
This comes with the caveat of peace and stability in Afghanistan. In past decades, the instability has hindered the process of repatriation. Thus, it is pertinent for all the regional and international stakeholders to identify areas of cooperation such as a sustainable political system, infrastructure for social services, employment and trade opportunities and peace and security. In contrast, Taliban have failed to protect human rights in Afghanistan since takeover. For any durable solution, the Taliban should fulfil their commitments with International community. As protracted crises will make life miserable for the Afghan people, sending shockwaves; ultimately affecting peace & stability in the region. Moreover, the tremor of the current global tumult is beyond the fortitude of a refugee.
Edited by: Hamayoun Khan, Programme Advisor, FES-Pakisan
Contributed by: Muhammad Murtaza Ali, Intern FES-Pakistan
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.