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An Empty Rhetoric

An Empty Rhetoric

By Palwasha Aftab

Imran Khan, the ex-Prime Minister of Pakistan, who once supported the return of Afghan refugees to their country, as reflected from the statements of the former National Security Advisor (NSA) of PTI's government, Moeed Yusuf, has now condemned the government’s strategy of expelling Afghan refugees, deeming it contrary to "Islamic and social values, decency, and wisdom." He characterized the decision as an outcome of misguided policies. However, Khan failed to take into account the legal, security, and socio-economic context that underpin the basis for government's expulsion policy, which this piece will touch upon.

While Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees, along with its 1967 protocol —the main document under international law that states the rights and duties of refugees —however, certain parts of the convention accord formal status to customary international law, and therefore, are instructive for even non-parties to the convention. Given this, it would be worthwhile to examine whether the Afghans presently in Pakistan are justifiably entitled to the protection accorded to refugees under the international law. For this, let us turn to the definition of a refugee in the 1951 convention.

Article 1 of the convention defines a refugee as one who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.

Presently, the security in Afghanistan has become quite stable. The cumulative study of the three UN reports issued in May, June and September 2023 by the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, the UNSC Monthly Forecast and the UNSG/ UNGA report on the situation in Afghanistan respectively indicate that Afghan refugees in Pakistan may safely return to their country of origin as the circumstances mentioned in Article 1 of the convention justifying their protection as refugees are no more obtaining in Afghanistan.

In fact, if the Taliban’s Acting Minister of Justice, Abdul Hakeem Sharaee's statement of September 2021, is to be gone by, wherein he categorically stated that the 1964 Afghan constitution would be the guiding document for affairs of the state, then under Article 26, paragraphs 1, 2, 10 and 16; and Articles 31, 32, 33, 34, 37 of the adopted 1964 monarchy constitution, the Afghan government is liable to provide security to its natives from persecution.

Against this backdrop, Afghan refugees, let alone illegal migrants, who are in violation of Pakistan’s immigration laws, hold no legal basis to continue living in Pakistan, as justified by Imran Khan.

Additionally, if the security and economic situation of Pakistan be examined, Pakistan seems no more in position to sustain millions of refugees who are otherwise no more entitled to the protection and status accorded to refugees under international law.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a non-governmental organization that compiles statistics on terrorist attacks in South Asia, from January 2023 to November 27, 2023, there were 835 attacks carried out by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Pakistan. According to this portal, a total of 350 civilians, 485 security personnel and 507 militants were killed in these attacks.

As per the government of Pakistan, Afghan citizens living illegally in Pakistan have links with terrorist networks based in Afghanistan and were responsible for 14 of the 24 suicide bombings in the country this year. Apart from terrorist activities, undocumented Afghans are also involved in kidnapping for ransom, mobile snatching, trafficking of drugs, smuggling of weapons, humans, as well as Dollars , among other major crimes, becoming a serious concern for the law and order situation of the country.

Respecting the Islamic teachings on the treatment of refugees —also advised by former PM lately—Pakistan for more than four decades, has admirably hosted the Afghan refugees. This, however, has not been returned with the same Islamic spirit by the Afghan side, as the Afghan Interim Government's response on reigning in TTP has been disappointing, while the Afghan refugees have brought crime and terrorism to the country which shelters it.

Expectedly, the government of Pakistan, as part of its Islamic duty to secure its people and improve their living conditions, has been compelled to take a series of steps, that include enforcement of passport and visa policy for cross-border movement, deportation of illegal immigrants, mostly Afghans, and the combat of foreign currency smuggling, which otherwise Khan compromised in his case for Afghan refugees.

It also bears mentioning that Pakistan is not alone in its deportation policy. According to UNHCR, countries like Germany, Turkey and Iran have also stepped up their deportation of Afghans to maintain and manage their national security and resources.

Economically, while Pakistan may have averted the risk of sovereign default, economic growth remains restrictive, the overall business environment remains challenging, while 39.4 percent Pakistanis live below the poverty line. Under such economic conditions, Khan's argument that 1.5 million Afghan refugees, which by the way are nearly 4 million, are not a burden for a country that can barely feed its 39.4 percent, is the kind of rhetoric that elites, who are completely aloof from reality and the circumstances of poor Pakistanis.

To sum it up, Imran Khan's statement on Afghan refugees is a mere political rhetoric short of legal, security and economic realities. Furthermore, in a world where international relations should ideally be governed by the principle of give and take, Imran Khan's message that Pakistan should fulfill its neighbourly obligations in the face of Afghanistan being unwilling to do its part entails that either he is too appeasing or has no regard for Pakistan’s interest.


*Opinions expressed in this article are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The South Asia Times   

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