Pakistan & Refugee Issue – Salma Malik

One of the gravest
consequences of contemporary conflict is the mass displacement of citizens from
the comfort of their homes to places unfamiliar and unknown. As they move
across hostile territory, which once was their home, facing an uncertain
future, the immediate and pressing priority is to reach a safe and protected place,
as this movement is fraught with extreme danger and exploitation. As the
intensity of conflict both inter and intra state enhances, the number of
refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced citizens rises. At a
staggering figure of 26.4 million, the willingness of states to accept refugees
is declining especially with the wealthier and developed countries of Europe
and North America. Labeling them as Trojan horse of terrorism, many of these countries
have implemented stringent measures and laws to prevent flow of refugees and asylum
seekers to their countries. Thereby inflicting double
victimization on them, by firstly denying them refuge and then scapegoating
them as perpetrators of instability, violence, and terror in the host country.
Studies conducted to examine this casual relation between refugees and
terrorism have brought forth diverging results, showing that often it’s the interest
groups and radical nationalists in the host countries, that target or exploit
refugee populations for their vested interests.

86% of global refugee population
is hosted by the developing states, that are often riddled by their internal
governance issues, and are least endowed to provide a quality refuge.. These
host states most often are neighboring countries that are to certain degrees already
affected by the spillover violence in the neighborhood. This creates problems
related to border security, law enforcement, adjustment, settlement and
documentation of inflowing refugees, provision of shelter, food availability,
health care and as well as hosting of a large population group for an
indefinite timeframe. This can and has resulted in socio-economic conflicts
from local to larger scale between the refugee and host groups.

According to the 2021 UNHCR
figures, 69%
of the global refugee population
comes from five countries, of which 6.8
million are from Syrian Arab Republic, and 2.7 million from Afghanistan,
besides Venezuela, South Sudan and Myanmar (Burma). 38%
of this population group
is hosted in five countries, amongst which Türkiye is the
topmost with 3.8 million, and Pakistan stands third after Colombia with 1.5
million refugee populations. Before the outbreak of the Arab spring and the
Syrian war, Pakistan for the longest decades shared the top slot as a host
country. the point to note is that all these top five host countries, belong to
the developing world. According to the UNHCR 2015 annual report, more than 5.9 million
refugees under UNHCR’s mandate (42%) resided in countries where the GDP per
capita was below USD 5,000. The “Developing regions hosted 86 per cent of the
world’s refugees – at 12.4 million persons, the highest value in more than two
decades. The Least Developed Countries provided asylum to 3.6 million refugees
or 25 per cent of the global total.”

Pakistan & Refugee Challenge

As mentioned, Pakistan is amongst
the top few countries to have hosted the largest number of migrant and refugee
population for the last several decades. Amongst those seeking refuge were
citizens from India, Myanmar (Burma), Iran, Sri Lanka, African countries, with
Afghan refugees comprising the largest number. The point to note is that Pakistan
is neither a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor its follow-up 1967
protocol, additionally despite an overwhelming influx of refugees, it has not developed
a national policy to the effect. Yet as of the 1970s, it has hosted the largest
number of Afghan citizens seeking refuge due to troubled political and security
dynamics in their country. The first wave starting with April 1978 Saur
Revolution in Afghanistan, followed a year later by Soviet invasion which
resulted in the largest influx of Afghan refugees over the next one decade.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan was left alone to look after this refugee
population. With the Signing of the Geneva Accords, that formally terminated
the conflict, international donors halted any financial assistance to Pakistan
for the refugees, with UNHCR providing limited input. The world and the
international audience were now focused on the newly emerging conflict zones.
Attempts to repatriate and incentivize Afghans to return to their country
proved modest, as the country remained in a perpetual state of conflict and
instability. Additionally with a porous border, mechanisms to ensure
repatriation remained fluid.

In the entire South Asian
region, apart from Afghanistan which signed the initial convention, none of the
regional states have signed refugee protocols. However, due to Islamabad’s commitment
to customary international law, it abides by many of the principles enshrined
in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Due to its devotion to and demonstrated
interest in seeking a solution to refugee problem, Pakistan became member of UNHCR’s
Executive Committee (ExCom) in 1958. And since then it has been actively
engaged in establishing norms such as the need to fully protect refugees arriving
in a host country as a part of a large-scale influx, problems related to mass
influx of refugees and their right to seek asylum, refugee registration, as
well as protection of refugees within the territories of host countries. Furthermore,
in August 2000 Pakistan also publicly acknowledged its international legal obligations to refugees when it agreed
with UNHCR to screen Afghan refugees according to standards generally based on
international refugee law.

As of January 2022, UNHCR
stated that approximately three million Afghans live in Pakistan, of which an
estimated 775 000 are undocumented. However, according to Pakistani Ministry of
States and Frontiers Regions (SAFRON) the number of undocumented Afghans is
estimated to be between 300 000 and 400 000. With the August 2021 Taliban
takeover, a fresh round of refugees entered Pakistan, despite latter’s effort to curtail an inflow, which under
humanitarian grounds was impossible. As the number peaked to 117547 refugees
earlier in the year, Islamabad has been forced to take measures to ensure their
accommodation and well-being, further adding to its governance woes. However,
despite successive governments’ efforts over the past several years to document
refugee population, there is lack of availability of ‘authentic data’,
with several seeking fake Pakistani citizenship documents through corrupt


For a country like Pakistan,
the refugee problem is more of socio-political, and governance related, than
security in the purely traditional sense. Although, during the 1980s, the
refugee camps became an incubator for militant and jihadi training, with a mass
recruitment of Afghan youth who later became prominent Taliban and TTP
leadership is a unique aspect to the Pakistan-Afghanistan refugee profile, the
worst impact over the decades has been of socio-economic nature, with
Pakistan’s micro-economic profile in select areas with higher refugee
concentration, becoming adversely impacted. The absence of a defined policy,
Pakistan’s handling of the refugee issue has been ad hoc, and unfavorable both
for itself as well as the refugee population. Its overzealous attitude towards
the refugees in the 1980s, had a spread of Afghan nationals all over the
country, which made data gathering and registration problematic. Lastly, as
Afghanistan remains instable, hosting a growing refugee population alone
remains extremely difficult for Islamabad. Targeted by religio-political
interest groups, and with very limited economic growth options, the refugees
appear more of a liability than an asset, which needs to be addressed, and this
has also adversely affected Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan. Even though
in terms of humanitarian assistance and accommodation, Pakistan has always
tried to cushion and accommodate the rising number, providing health,
education, food and civic assistance given its limited capacity. It is unfair
to expect more, in terms of moral and humanitarian efforts, when it is already
burdened by pressing governance indicators, internal strife, hosting decades
old and largest refugee population and now saddled by economic challenges.

Where protecting refugees is
a major political decision undertaken by individual state actors, it is a
collective responsibility to respond effectively to such challenges, as global
flash points increase in time. As legal framework and institutional arrangements
improve, humane efforts and empathy needs to be adopted by all, collectively
rather than by a select few countries.

Dr. Salma Malik, Quaid-I-Azam University

Dr. Salma Malik is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-I-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan. She specializes in the areas of Conflict and Security Studies, and South Asian Affairs. She is an alumnus of Uppsala University, Sweden, Asia Pacific Center for Strategic Studies APCSS, Hawaii and Visiting Research Fellow, Sandia National Labs, USA. She is member Board of Governors, Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad, Member Senate, Air War College Institute, Karachi, and member core group on Gender, Peace & Security, National Security Division. She has served at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, and is also on the Visiting Faculty list of leading civil and military academies and institutions, as well as universities. Her publications include an edited volume, “Pakistan’s Security Problems and Challenges in the Next Decade,” (October 2015). And “Small Arms and the Security Debate in South Asia,” (2005) besides articles in research journals, book chapters and monthly columns.

To cite this work : Salma Malik “ Pakistan & Refugee Issue”, Panorama, Online , 01 August 2022,

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