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Amid U.S.-Pakistan Spat, Afghan Refugees Feel Trapped In Uncertainty

FILE: Afghan refugees wait for registration with Pakistani authorities in Quetta, Balochistan in August 2017.
FILE: Afghan refugees wait for registration with Pakistani authorities in Quetta, Balochistan in August 2017.

Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar is the only place middle-aged Afghan refugee Shakaiba knows as home.

Peshawar has given the housewife, now in her 50s, the best years of her life. Shakaiba, who like many Afghans goes by one name only, now feels mounting pressure from Islamabad to leave Peshawar and move back to neighboring Afghanistan, which she hardly knows after 22 years in exile.

She says Afghan refugees feel caught between Islamabad and Washington as bilateral relations rapidly deteriorate after U.S. President Donald Trump accused Pakistan on January 1 of “lies and deceit” while providing a safe haven to terrorists that U.S. forces are seeking to counter in Afghanistan.

Shakaiba feels her community is being used as a pawn in the complicated ties between Pakistan and the United States.

“We Afghan refugees always feel the heat and headache whenever relations between Pakistan and other Western countries deteriorate,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We are living in this country out of compulsion. My two children go to school here, but all of us are now worried and bracing for harassment by the police.”

Shakaiba is one of the 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Their conditions became desperate after Pakistan’s federal cabinet extended their Proof of Registration (PoR) cards for one month only instead of the expected one-year extension under an understanding with the Afghan government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

While Islamabad didn’t declare that the move was connected to Trump’s January 1 tweet, its announcement on January 3 prompted many to connect the dots.

Sana Omar, a young Afghan refugee woman, is pursuing a pharmaceutical degree in Peshawar. She says she was devastated to hear her future stay in Pakistan is uncertain. “My career will be doomed if I have to leave this degree after investing three years in an effort to get it,” she said.

In Kabul, the Afghan government, too, is concerned.

“This announcement by Pakistan violates the international refugees and human rights conventions such as the 1951 Geneva convention and the 1967 protocol,” says Islamuddin Jurat, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Refugees and Repatriations Ministry.

Qaisar Afridi, a spokesman for UNHCR in Pakistan, says the development violated the understanding his organization and Kabul had with Islamabad.

“We are concerned,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “In the tripartite meeting between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and UNHCR in Istanbul [in November], we had agreed on extending the refugee [PoR] cards for one year.”

On January 3, Pakistan’s cabinet painted the Afghan refugees as a major burden on the country of 208 million.

“Pakistan’s economy has carried the burden of hosting Afghan refugees for a long time and in the present circumstances cannot sustain it further,” said a statement by the Pakistani cabinet.

But Asif Ghafoor, spokesman for the military, said Afghan refugee communities obstruct counterterrorism operations because they provide hideouts for militants launching attacks in Afghanistan.

Afghan refugees have had a complicated relationship with Pakistan. In one of the largest displacements of recent history, more than 7 million Afghans have fled to Pakistan since the communist coup in Afghanistan in 1978.

In addition to the 1.4 million registered Afghans, hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans currently live in Pakistan.

Kabul now hopes for the best while preparing for the worst. Afghan officials say their government is talking to international donors to plan for a potential exodus of an estimated 2 million Afghans from Pakistan.

Zardasht Shams, deputy head of the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad, says it is unrealistic to expect that so many Afghans can leave Pakistan soon because even the voluntary repatriation overseen by the UNHCR is suspended during the winter months.

Shams says they are trying hard to find common ground with Islamabad. “We are trying to find a more rational and practical return date [for the Afghan refugees],” he said.