Pakistan’s Afghan refugees face uncertain future

HAMEED: On Islamabad’s Faqeer Aipee Road, a child leads a camel along the dirt path while an SUV races past on the pavement. It has become an ordinary scene to locals, scores of people and a sudden collection of shanties to the sides of the road. This is a place known as Afghan Basti, a makeshift settlement that is home exclusively to refugees who have arrived in the city from Afghanistan.

Afghan refugee communities in Pakistan face abominable living conditions with little ascertainable hope for change. With their government-issued residency cards set to expire at the end of this year and no structure for repatriation, the situation for Afghan refugees remains unclear.

OBAID: There is no education. No education system. I mean no school, no health facility, no sanitation and no water.

HAMEED: That is Obaid Ullah, a research associate with the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center, or AHKRC, a rural development and sustainability research institute in Islamabad.

Obaid has been spending time in Islamabad’s Katchi Abadis, squatter settlements located on the outskirts of the capital city, collecting data on the living conditions of residents of the settlements.
The Afghan Basti is one of the Katchi Abadis in which Obaid has been conducting his research.

OBAID: Four hundred households are living on the other side. This is called Afghan Basti.
Each family are the composition of family are 11 to 12 members each family has.

HAMEED: Obaid describes the close-quarters of their living situation.

OBAID: There are one to two rooms in their houses and one family live in one room. There are two rooms in one house there are living two families.

HAMEED: And this particular settlement only represents a small amount of the almost two million documented Afghan refugees currently in Pakistan.

According to Tim Irwin of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ in Pakistan, the Afghan refugee population has been present in the country for a long time. Irwin is UNHCR Pakistan’s Senior Communications Officer.

IRWIN: The first Afghan refugees began arriving in this country following the Soviet invasion in 1979, so we have a history here that starts back more than 30, which is as long as the Afghan refugee situation has been going on.

HAMEED: And Obaid explains that the refugee population has not remained stagnant, with more people coming in from high-conflict zones in recent years.

OBAID: In these areas, in three years, in three and four years their numbers are increasing.

HAMEED: Organizations like the AHKRC are getting involved in hopes of changing the dynamic of efforts to alleviate poverty.

BAQIR: To bridge the gap between the world of practice in Pakistan and the world of academics. That is the purpose.

HAMEED: Fayyaz Baqir, director of AHKRC, describes the center’s goals. The center conducts case studies on the work of individual organizations involved in development intended to reduce poverty.

With AHKRC, Obaid has been studying the effectiveness of projects implemented by individual development-oriented NGOs. However, the results do not show a promising state of affairs.

OBAID: The organization, EHD Foundation, basically they are working there uh they provided 300 hand pumps.

HAMEED: The Education, Health and Development Foundation, is a Pakistan-based non-profit striving for social well-being. Obaid explains that out of these 300 water pumps delivered, only three or four remain even partially functional.

OBAID: They have no water, drinking water, facilities and they have no sanitation, health and education facilities in the area.

HAMEED: Obaid explains that, for small organizations, it is difficult to maintain development projects.

OBAID: The organization, they have provided them the water hand-pumps have not enough institutional capacity.

HAMEED: Pakistan’s UNHCR is conducts its on-the-ground work through small, national organizations as well.

IRWIN: Through partner organizations, we provide limited assistance to that.

HAMEED: Irwin explains that working with the small organizations is necessary for practical purposes.

IRWIN: We work with a large number of, generally, national NGOs that we partner with sometimes for work in areas which are insecure for international staff to work in. Just do things in a more efficient manner.

HAMEED: But Obaid, through his research reporting on such organizations, questions the overall effectiveness of such tactics.

OBAID: They have no capacity to reach all beneficiaries and there is no any other organization working in the same areas.

HAMEED: The other route is policy. The Pakistani government is an indispensable player in addressing the refugee population. A registration initiative by the government since 2006 has given Afghan refugees legal residency status in Pakistan. Still, this is only temporary. The residency cards expire every three years, after which these permits would need to be renewed or the cardholders would need to be repatriated.

IRWIN: They were renewed in 2009 and so they expire again at the end of 2012. And so what happens at the end of 2012 is still being worked.

HAMEED: According to Irwin, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres says that the future regional development strategy must prioritize an environment within Afghanistan that is conducive to the voluntary repatriation of refugees.

IRWIN: The head of our agency the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is in Islamabad right now and he’s been meeting with government officials to plan the way forward beyond 2012 and not just in the context of Pakistan but regionally to involve the governments of Iran, which also has a large refugee population, and Afghanistan.
What’s being discussed is a regional strategy which needs greater international support for to improve conditions inside Afghanistan so more refugees want to return home and to provide greater assistance to those countries that continue to host large numbers of Afghan refugees such as Pakistan and Iran.

HAMEED: And for vulnerable populations, alternative opportunities may be necessary.

IRWIN: Variety of options, one of them being, you know, allowing certain groups of Afghans, such as students or women who are on their own currently, to get residency permits.

HAMEED: However, this does not address problems facing Afghans remaining in Pakistan, such as access to water. Baqir says that he believes that development will improve through further knowledge of the state of affairs.

BAQIR: Link it up with academic institutions and media so that we create awareness in the larger public, and we inform our youth and academics and leadership about how to improve the situation on ground.

HAMEED: Still, unless the Pakistani government creates and implements a plan regarding the status of Afghan refugees, the uncertainty of their situation will persist. For War News Radio, I’m Fatimah Hameed.

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