The history of Afghanistan has been marred by decades of conflict, wars and political instability. These tumultuous events have had profound consequences not only for Afghanistan but for Pakistan as well, being a neighbouring country. The conflict began when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up a communist government that was facing resistance from various Afghan factions, known as the mujahideen. The United States and its allies provided support to the mujahideen, and this conflict became a proxy war during the Cold War era. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, Afghanistan descended into a civil war characterized by factional fighting, warlordism and instability.
The power vacuum left by the Soviets’ departure allowed the Taliban, a radical group, to gain control of large parts of Afghanistan. Their rule was characterized by a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, with severe restrictions on liberty, equality, rights, education, and cultural activities. The international community, including Pakistan, had varying degrees of engagement with the Taliban regime, with some countries recognizing it as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. During this period, millions of Afghans fled their war-torn country in search of safety and better opportunities. Many of them sought refuge in neighbouring Pakistan, which became home to one of the world’s largest refugee populations. Afghan refugees first began arriving in Pakistan during the early years of the Afghan War, and their numbers continued to grow throughout the subsequent years of conflict. Pakistan which had already faced its own challenges, including political instability and economic difficulties, found itself hosting millions of Afghan refugees. At its peak, the number of registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan exceeded three million. The United Nation’s General Assembly, the UN Security Council, the UN agencies such as UNHCR, UNICEF, UNESCO and a number of international communities have time and again recognized Pakistan’s role in providing refuge to Afghan nationals.
The majority of Afghan refugees in Pakistan were initially settled in the bordering provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. They lived in refugee camps, but many also integrated into Pakistani communities, making a living through various means, including labour, trade, and agriculture. While Pakistan has hosted a significant number of registered Afghan refugees, it has also grappled with the issue of unregistered and illegal Afghan migrants. These individuals either entered Pakistan without proper documentation or allowed their refugee status to lapse, making it difficult for the Pakistani government to track their numbers and movements. According to unofficial estimates, there are some 1.5 million illegal Afghan immigrants living in Pakistan. The issue of these Afghan migrants and illegal immigrants in Pakistan has now become a multifaceted and sensitive one. While the government of Pakistan has been aware and knows the complexity of the issue and is trying to solve the matter with empathy, understanding, and in accordance with international humanitarian principles and laws, the presence of unregistered and illegal Afghan migrants has raised several challenges. Pakistan has legitimate security concerns related to the presence of Afghan refugees. There have been instances of militants and criminals exploiting refugee populations. Addressing security issues while respecting the rights of refugees is a challenging balance. Pakistan’s economy faces challenges in providing essential services to both its own citizens and registered Afghan refugees. The additional burden of unregistered migrants’ strains already limited resources. Unregistered Afghan migrants often live in the shadows, making it difficult for them to access education, healthcare, and other essential services. This can lead to social and economic marginalization.
The issue of unregistered and illegal Afghan migrants in Pakistan is a complex challenge which requires a comprehensive approach that balances security concerns with humanitarian considerations. It’s essential to engage in dialogue, diplomacy, and collaboration with relevant international organizations and governments to find humane and lawful solutions to the challenges posed by the presence of Afghan migrants and undocumented immigrants in Pakistan. Simply calling for their mass expulsion without considering the broader context and international obligations would not be consistent with established principles of human rights and refugee protection. Many believe that consideration should be given to regularizing the status of unregistered Afghan migrants, subject to background checks and verification that would allow them to access basic services and contribute to the economy legally. The international community should provide financial and logistical support to Pakistan to help manage the refugee and migrant population. Pakistan and Afghanistan should engage in constructive dialogue to address the issue of refugees and migrants. Bilateral agreements could help regulate the flow of people across the border. NGOs and humanitarian organizations should continue their efforts to provide assistance to Afghan refugees and migrants, ensuring they have access to shelter, food, education, and healthcare.
Amidst the challenges posed by unregistered and illegal Afghan migrants in Pakistan, there is a growing call for Afghans to return to their homeland and contribute to its reconstruction. The recent developments in Afghanistan, including the Taliban’s return to power and international efforts to stabilize the country, provide an opportunity for Afghans to play a crucial role in rebuilding their nation. Afghanistan needs its skilled workforce to rebuild its infrastructure, economy, and institutions. The return of Afghan professionals from all around the world, including doctors, engineers, and educators, is vital for the country’s development. Afghans can bring their rich cultural heritage and diverse experiences to help shape a more inclusive and tolerant society. Their return can contribute to the revival of Afghan culture and traditions. Afghans should have a say in the future of their country. By returning to Afghanistan, they can actively participate in shaping their nation’s destiny, ensuring that it aligns with their aspirations and values.
The Taliban, as the de facto governing authority in Afghanistan, must create conditions conducive to the voluntary return of Afghan nationals, the refugees and displaced persons. The Taliban should respect and protect the human rights of all Afghans, regardless of their ethnicity, gender or political beliefs. This includes freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and protection from discrimination and violence and ensuring the environment where its citizens feel safe, hopeful, and empowered to contribute to their country’s development. This requires a multi-layered approach that addresses security, political stability, economic opportunities, and humanitarian needs, while respecting the choices and rights of Afghan individuals.