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The Forgotten Afghans of Pakistan

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A little over 1.7 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan. That is the official figure from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. A statistic that is only half true. According to Pakistani government's counts, 2.15 million registered Afghan refugees are living in the country. It is possible that an equally high number of unregistered Afghans live in Pakistan. These refugees, who make up to 2% of Pakistan's and 10% of Afghanistan's populations, are a forgotten people. They deserve a second thought during heated debates on the future of the Af-Pak region.

The refugees, who first arrived in 1979 with the Soviet invasion, have only grown in numbers. The second wave came when the Russians left in 1989. The Afghan civil war added hundreds of thousands to this number. And the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 triggered another wave of asylum seekers. This makes Pakistan the most hospitable country in the world for those fleeing wars, diseases and hunger.

Unlike common perceptions, not all of the refugees are Pashtuns. There are Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras along with the Pashtuns who call Pakistan their temporary abode. Many of them have acquired Pakistani citizenship through unfair means. Some of them have struck gold as drug dealers, smugglers, rug sellers and restaurateurs. Others are languishing in the refugee camps set up in the 1980s.

One does not need to venture outside of Islamabad to meet them. There are thousands of Afghans living here. The Hazars and Tajiks are mostly well-off, living in mansions or cozy apartments. Some Pashtuns have also made it big while others barely scrape by. The poorest of them live in squatter settlements at the fringes of the Pakistani capital. They work as petty laborers, drug peddlers and scavengers.

Azmat, a scrawny 50-year old from Jalalabad, works as a ranch hand at the farmhouse of an influential federal minister. The estate, which is one of the many illegal constructions sprung up in recent years, employs many from his country. "There are no jobs in Afghanistan. At least we get to eat here," he told me.

Afghanistan has one of the world's highest unemployment rates. Although there has been a construction boom in Kabul, Afghan hinterland is as destitute as it was ten years ago. The conditions are particularly worse for the Pashtuns, who, despite having the majority, are not given enough share in government jobs. They are treated with suspicion in the private sector where many associate them with the Taliban.

What about the Tajiks and Hazaras? Their native regions in Afghanistan are not as restive and have seen development. Why, then, are they still staying put in their Pakistani homes? "Security and luxury," told Ali, a Tajik carpet seller who runs a booming business in Islamabad. He has built a home back in Feyzabad but stays in Islamabad. "This is our home now. We can't think of going anywhere else."

They may not be going anywhere but they are straining the already thin resources of Pakistan. And some of them are involved in criminal activities. Many Pakistanis blame Afghans for introducing drugs and arms. "They were the ones who brought heroin and Kalashnikov here," said Huma, a home maker from Islamabad whose house was recently robbed by what appeared to be Afghans. Pakistanis also question the integrity of those refugees who have made their lives here but still hate the country.

"This is particularly true of Hazaras and Tajiks who curse Pakistan while having homes and businesses here," said Khawar, a university student.

At least they are contributing to the national economy. There are hundreds of thousands of others, mostly Pashtun, who still live in refugee camps. They are clothed and fed by the Pakistani government, and the UNCHR, which has been doing that for the last 33 years. True that the Americans helped the refugees during the Afghan Jihad but their enthusiasm fizzled out soon afterwards. It was rekindled after 9/11 but was short lived.

Afghan refugees are in a conundrum. They cannot shun their roots. Many vote in Afghan elections while staying in Pakistan (the country hosts thousands of polling booths). They visit their homeland but never stay there for long. They have effectively become dual citizens. Should Pakistan grant them citizenship or is the Afghan government, with financial help from the U.S., ready to welcome them back?

One thing is clear though. The Afghan refugees can become an excellent bargaining chip for Pakistan. The resources spent on their welfare overshadow the aid Pakistan received during these years. They are not a responsibility of Pakistan in the first place. Perhaps it is time for Afghanistan and the U.S. to acknowledge this fact.