Perspective

What is wrong with repatriating Afghan refugees?

Published Feb 01, 2017 12:57am

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It is not an accident that Pakistan is viewed with such suspicion and antipathy in world forums. Our nation has brought condemnation upon itself. We have backed insurgencies in neighbouring countries, harboured terrorists and extremists, allowed sectarian killers to slaughter our fellow citizens, refused to embrace the principle that all are equal before the law, neglected our poor and permitted deceit and corruption to flourish in every aspect of our national life.

And yet, Pakistan has also performed a deeply decent act on the world stage. For decades, it has provided a haven to some three million Afghan refugees.

Pakistan is not blameless in the creation of the conditions that led to so many people fleeing Afghanistan. And Pakistan has not been perfect in its treatment of those who fled to it. But still, permitting three million vulnerable people to stay for so long is meaningful.

The Lost Generation | Moeen Faruqi (acrylic on canvas)
The Lost Generation | Moeen Faruqi (acrylic on canvas)

In its acceptance of refugees, Pakistan has behaved morally. Incomparably more wealthy European countries are presently failing to welcome much smaller numbers of refugees. For Europe, the issue of refugees reveals a stark hypocrisy that clashes with lofty rhetoric. For Pakistan, the issue of refugees reveals a reservoir of conscience at odds with pervasive cynicism (engendered by, among many other things, the embarrassing revelation that Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Afghan Taliban chief slain in an American drone strike in Balochistan in May 2016, was carrying fake Pakistani identity documents).

So the recent decision by the Pakistan government to repatriate Afghan refugees to conflict-ridden Afghanistan is a terribly misguided one. (It has already resulted in giving Pakistan’s humanitarian image a jolt with the jailing and repatriation of the ailing Nat Geo girl, Sharbat Gula, for possessing a fake Pakistani identity card, and her high-profile welcome in her homeland.)

It is misguided because catastrophic harm threatens to befall these three million refugees, and because there are other ways for Pakistan to improve its internal security that are less indiscriminate in their impact. But it is also misguided because it undermines the foundations of the new and more hopeful Pakistani narrative our country is desperately trying to construct.

This narrative is vital to our future: the story of Pakistan as a decent state that seeks to do good in the world and safeguard the rights of its citizens, a state that has learnt hard lessons from walking down the path of intolerance and divisiveness and extremism.

In some ways, countries like India under Narendra Modi, and potentially the United States under Donald Trump, are moving towards an intolerance that we have already explored thoroughly. Meanwhile, Pakistan, having suffered so much, might perhaps be beginning to march in a different direction.

There have been some encouraging signs. The democratic transition of power through a peaceful election in 2013. Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the battle against militants and terrorists. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and a vision of growth through trade with our neighbours. The refusal to send troops to fight in Yemen. The women’s rights bill. An army chief stepping down on schedule at the end of his tenure. The renaming of a physics centre after Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, previously snubbed because of his faith.

While there have also been negative developments in recent years, a story of Pakistan emerging from its dark ages of short-minded chauvinism and obscurantism is now at least plausible. But such a story requires foundations that are not just economic or geopolitical.

This hopeful story requires moral foundations as well. Pakistan will not succeed only by realising that it must strive to do decently: to achieve an economy growth rate of such-and-such and a defence budget of such-and-such. No, for Pakistan to succeed it will have to realise that it must behave decently.

Such behaviour is not beyond us. We have behaved decently in the past. Allowing three million Afghan refugees to live in Pakistan is proof of that. We must let them stay not only for their sake, but for ours, because in letting them stay we are staking a claim to the kind of country we rightly dream that Pakistan becomes.


This article was published as part of a special editorial project '2016 In Broad Strokes' for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a novelist and the author of Moth Smoke.

The artist has had his work displayed in numerous exhibitions and holds a degree from California State University.