For Afghan Refugees, Pakistan Is a Nightmare—but Also Home

Host to one of the world’s largest refugee populations, the country is trying to figure out how to push migrants out. But that will mean sending many Afghans back to a country they’ve never lived in.

Afghan refugees arrive at a U.N.-run repatriation center in Torkham, Afghanistan on Oct. 31, 2016.
Afghan refugees arrive at a U.N.-run repatriation center in Torkham, Afghanistan on Oct. 31, 2016. Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

It was the summer of 2018, and Nazneen was restless. The 27-year-old woman twisted and turned the corner of her pink dupatta between her fingers as she spoke, her tempo rising and then quickly falling whenever she realized how loud her voice had grown. “I’m worried for my son,” she said, eventually, as we sat under a slowly moving fan in her office at the Abu Ali Sina Training Institute in Board Bazaar, Peshawar. “He’s only 2 years old,” she said. “The new school year is about to start in August. Afghan families, at this point, will be wondering whether to spend money and get their children admitted in schools if they are ultimately going to get driven out by the time the year ends.”

Nazneen is an Afghan refugee who was born in Pakistan. Her parents came to Pakistan in 1979, crossing the Durand Line to flee the Soviet invasion. There are millions more like her. The country officially hosts 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, making it home to the one of the world’s largest refugee populations. By most estimates, around a million more immigrants live there without proper documentation. Of those, the majority percent are like Nazneen: second- or third-generation refugees, born on Pakistani soil but not considered Pakistani citizens. Instead of the dark green Pakistani passports and national identity cards that citizens get, they’re assigned only Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, which entitle them to freedom of movement and temporary legal status in the country. Islamabad bars them from purchasing property, vehicles, and even SIM cards. They can’t attend public schools or universities. Hospitals often refuse to admit expectant Afghan mothers because they cannot issue birth certificates to the newborns. The refugees live each day with the looming threat of being deported to a country they have never set foot in.

When Nazneen’s parents escaped Kabul in 1979, they left everything behind: clothes, books, the food laid out on plates in the kitchen. Soon after the family arrived in Pakistan, the Soviets managed to seize control of Kabul and turned Afghanistan into the last battlefield of the Cold War; villages caught in crossfire between the Soviets and local rebels were razed to the ground. By the end of 1980, close to 2 million refugees from Afghanistan had crossed the Durand Line and reached Pakistan. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set up its first office in Peshawar that year.

The early days were hard for Nazneen’s family. Their initial weeks in Peshawar were spent in the overcrowded Kacha Garhi refugee camp, but with the war in Afghanistan showing no signs of ending, it was time to look for somewhere more permanent to live. And although assimilation into Peshawar wasn’t difficult—the family belonged to the Pashtun ethnic group and spoke Pashto like most of Peshawar’s residents—the absence of proper identification documents made it impossible for them to stay in one house for longer than a year.

And so, they hopped from one rented house to another, often getting kicked out when landlords discovered that they weren’t citizens. After spending several months with no income and getting turned away from jobs despite having a master’s degree, Nazneen’s father began to drive a rickshaw to make ends meet. In the summer of 1984, the family finally settled in Board Bazaar, a neighborhood in the heart of Peshawar that is now colloquially called Mini-Kabul or Chotta Kabul by residents of the city.

By the time Nazneen was born in 1990, both her parents had begun teaching at the Abu Ali Sina Training Institute, a vocational college in Board Bazaar, and had managed to find a landlord willing to rent out property to Afghans. By that point, Afghanistan had descended into a brutal conflict between two splinter mujahideen groups—Hizb-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Islami. Then, in 1996, another group, the Taliban, captured Jalalabad and Kabul. Mazar-e-Sharif fell in 1998. By December 2000, 1.2 million refugees had crossed the Durand Line into Pakistan.

The Abu Ali Sina Training Institute at Board Bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan, on June 23, 2018. Zuha Siddiqui for Foreign Policy

Board Bazaar was bursting with activity last summer. Most of its merchants were Afghan, as were most customers. Women haggled with peddlers over the price of fruit, roadside cafes prepared endless servings of Kabuli pulao and Afghani burgers, and rickshaws buzzed around waiting to pick up weary patrons—all of this at temperatures topping 105 degrees Fahrenheit. “For every 100 people you meet,” said Dawood Jabarkhail, an Afghan journalist who was born in 1985 in a refugee camp in Pakistan, “about 70 are Afghan. They’re working as laborers, fruit sellers, truck drivers. They speak Pashto like everyone else in this city, and you won’t know that they’re Afghan until you ask them to show you identification cards.”

Too often, though, the authorities make just that request. When members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban stormed an army-operated school in Peshawar in December 2014 and killed more than 130 students, Afghan refugees in Pakistan found themselves caught up in the aftermath. Pakistan accused Afghanistan of providing sanctuary to the militant group and began to threaten—both directly and indirectly—to expel Afghan refugees residing within its borders. In January 2015, the federal government presented its national action plan for counterterrorism. A key point was the repatriation of all Afghans by the end of 2015. Through this plan, the UNHCR and the government of Pakistan agreed to work together, forming the Commission on Voluntary Repatriation of Afghan Refugees From Pakistan and offering incentives to return to Afghanistan, including cash grants of $400 per family.

Some did leave willingly, but in 2016, up to 365,000 refugees were also driven back forcefully into Afghanistan by Pakistan’s police and military. Human Rights Watch reported it as a “coerced exodus,” the largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees and asylum-seekers in recent times. Dozens were arbitrarily detained, including the sick and the elderly. Many police officers claimed that the refugees’ PoR cards had expired in December 2015 and used this as an excuse to demand money or threaten them with deportation. “Tell me,” Jabarkhail said. “How do you expect a poor Afghan laborer to cough up 40,000 to 50,000 [Pakistani rupees] to bribe a police officer? It’s simply not possible.”

For now, the international community has turned a blind eye to the harassment. Despite a Human Rights Watch report explicitly pointing to UNHCR complicity in forceful repatriation, the relief organization has remained silent about Pakistan’s large-scale effort to push Afghans—who now number 2.3 million—out of the country.

The Proof of Registration Card Modification Center for registered Afghan refugees in Karachi, Pakistan, on June 20, 2018. Zuha Siddiqui for Foreign Policy

The National Database and Registration Authority’s Office for Afghan Registration in Karachi is located at the city’s southernmost tip, in a posh area called Clifton. On a good day, it would take a refugee living in Karachi’s Muhajir camp, the largest Afghan enclave in the city, at least two hours to get to this office. They would also have to pay two tolls and may be stopped multiple times along the way by police officers at various checkpoints.

The office is in a one-story house. One room serves as the main office, and the carport has been converted into a makeshift waiting area. In July 2017, there were are only two staff members: a woman who typed away at a rickety Pentium 4 desktop computer in the corner and a man who sat behind a desk.

In 2014, the UNHCR estimated that there were 67,000 Afghan refugees in Karachi alone. Every few months, when their PoR cards expire, thousands of refugees are expected to trek to this office and get their cards renewed. “We’re just human resources,” the man behind the desk, Ali, said. “This project’s funding comes from the UNHCR, not the government of Pakistan.”

He was talking about the massive Afghan registration project that began in 2006. The project brought together the UNHCR, Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority, and its Ministry of States and Frontier Regions. The UNHCR believes that these cards are an important form of identification for Afghan refugees. They are a sign of their legal right to stay in Pakistan and should provide effective protection against arrest and forcible return. But the UNHCR-issued PoR card also allows the state to formally identify and surveil Afghan refugees.

The administration of the program has also kept Afghans’ lives in constant flux. In 2010, a total of 1.74 million PoR cards were renewed. The cards again expired at the end of 2012 and were subsequently extended for six months through a formal notification issued by the government. Since then, the validity of PoR cards has been extended for different periods—sometimes for six months and sometimes for three. This year, PoR cards were extended until June 30, 2019. When asked whether Karachi’s refugees were really expected to come all the way to Clifton to renew their cards every few months, Ali only said, “Yes.” The woman sitting to his right kept shuffling papers and didn’t meet my gaze.

Pakistan is among the 30 countries in the world that offer unconditional birthright citizenship—meaning that a child born on its soil will automatically receive a passport. Section 4 of the Citizenship Act of 1951 confirms citizenship by birth: Every person born in Pakistan after the commencement of this act shall be a citizen of Pakistan.

Over time, a number of Afghan refugees have tried to naturalize in Pakistan as citizens, but these claims have always been denied. In 1999, a young man named Ghulam Sanai applied for a Pakistani national identity card when he turned 18, citing Section 4. The Peshawar High Court refused his petition, ruling that despite being born in Pakistan, Sanai could not get a national identity card since his parents were Afghan refugees and their stay in Pakistan was meant to be temporary. As a result, a child born to Afghan parents in Pakistan is neither a Pakistani citizen nor can he or she legally claim asylum in Pakistan. In other words, such children have no way to live in Pakistan legally.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has suggested that he would reform the system. In September 2018, he announced that his government would grant citizenship to children of Afghan refugees. But opposition parties quickly lashed out. A senior opposition party leader, Taj Haider, remarked on a local TV show one day after Khan’s announcement that Pakistan belongs to Pakistanis and that refugees should be given refugee status. One of Khan’s key allies, Jam Kamal, the chief minister of the province of Baluchistan, also expressed his reservations, arguing that there was proof of refugees being involved in terrorist activities. Others, such as Akhtar Mengal of the Baluchistan National Party, cited demographic concerns. “If we are unable to provide jobs to our own people, how can we lift the load of surplus refugees?” he said.

And there was opposition within the general public, too. On Sept. 22, 2018, the local Express Tribune published a report quoting analysts and university professors in Islamabad stating that issuing passports to Afghans born in Pakistan posed “threats to Pakistan’s national security.” “Some of them fall trap of terrorist elements,” the report stated. Or they may “get involved into anti-Pakistan activities.” Unsurprisingly, this report corroborated a 2016 Gallup opinion poll according to which 90 percent of Pakistani citizens supported blocking Afghans without visas from entering the country in order to help counterterrorism efforts.

Two days after Khan made his statement, he backtracked, saying that his words were only meant to “stir debate” around the refugee crisis. It seems unlikely, then, that citizenship for Afghans born in Pakistan is in the offing. According to Muhammad Saad Khan, a retired military brigadier and former Pakistani defense attaché in Kabul, they’re too valuable a bargaining tool with Afghanistan. “The ups and downs in the relationship between the two countries are reflected in the status of Afghan refugees,” he said. “When relations between the two countries go south, Pakistan usually says they won’t renew PoR cards, threatens to send refugees back. And when they are slightly better—like right now—the government extends the validity of these cards.”

Some Afghans may prefer to keep a low profile and renew their registration cards when necessary. But Biryalai Miankhel, the chairman of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chapter of the United Supreme Council of Afghan Refugees, has been tirelessly advocating for refugees in the country. A refugee himself, Miankhel migrated to Pakistan in 1984 from Nangarhar province in Afghanistan.

Miankhel’s organization has been trying to give Afghan refugees residing in his province a voice. It includes Afghan students, laborers, transporters, and shopkeepers, who often lead protests and sit-ins outside Peshawar and Islamabad press clubs. The group, Miankhel said, has reached out to the Afghan government multiple times—met Ashraf Ghani thrice, Hamid Karzai twice. They also held press conferences and meetings with the UNHCR multiple times. But nothing seems to have worked.

“Sometimes, our elders wish to be buried in their hometowns in Afghanistan, and we’re compelled to cross the border,” he said. “At the border, when we’re returning to Pakistan, we’re often harassed, especially at night and along the way into Pakistan, often accused of smuggling in narcotics by border officials. We then have to bribe border officials with 4,000 or 5,000 [rupees] in order to cross back in. And it doesn’t matter whether we have valid PoR cards or valid passports.”

In 2008, the researcher Daniel Kronenfeld raised an important question in a paper published in the Journal of Refugee Studies: The issue, he said, is “not just how to count Afghan refugees in Pakistan, but who constitute refugees in the first place.” More than 10 years later, this question has become all the more pressing. For refugees like Nazneen, Pakistan is the only home they have ever known. Yet her life involves passing through checkpoints every day, suffering daily harassment from police, and living with the looming threat of deportation to a country she has never lived in.

Given the difficulty of ousting so many people at once, it is likely that the PoR cards will be renewed past this summer. But that doesn’t mean that Pakistan will make Afghans’ lives easy. In 2015, a campaign of arbitrary arrests and harassment drove more than 33,000 Afghans out of the country. According to UNHCR staff, several returnees to Afghanistan cited arrests, detentions, and evictions as the reasons for their return. And just last year, Pakistan attempted to accelerate refugee repatriation—despite skyrocketing levels of violence in Afghanistan—by announcing a 30-day ultimatum to return to Afghanistan. Eventually, after protests led by civil society and activists, the ultimatum was lifted.

The lack of clarity about the future of the PoR cards motivates some Pakistan-born Afghan refugees to apply for Afghan passports. But that means increasing their chances of being driven away from Pakistan. In 2005, for example, Nazneen’s family decided to apply for Afghan passports. “What they didn’t tell us, when we were being given these passports, was that eventually we would have to go all the way to the border at Torkham every month to get our visas renewed,” Nazneen said.

Torkham is two hours away by road, and for a family of five to gather the money to spend on a four-hour journey—back and forth—every single month is asking the impossible. And there are no exceptions. Everyone has to go to the border to get their passports stamped: the elderly, the sick, infants. And there is never any guarantee of getting back in. “I’ve never lived in Afghanistan,” Nazneen added. “I’ve spent my life in Pakistan. I was born here, my husband was born here, my baby was born here. This is my home. And yet I wake up every morning thinking today is going to be our last day here.”

Zuha Siddiqui is a freelance journalist.