Pakistan threatens to deport all refugees

An Afghan refugee outside a grocery store in Utmanzai refugee camp. He is but one of at least 1.5 million documented refugees caught in the middle of a wider spat involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US. Pakistan wants all the refugees gone by the
An Afghan refugee outside a grocery store in Utmanzai refugee camp. He is but one of at least 1.5 million documented refugees caught in the middle of a wider spat involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US. Pakistan wants all the refugees gone by the end of this month, a move that risks leading to a humanitarian disaster.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Reaction to rising tension with US after American drone killed Taleban leader

UTMANZAI • More than three decades after fleeing Afghanistan, refugee Noor Said struggles to feed his family of eight on less than the US$3 (S$4) he earns each day weaving fabric in north-west Pakistan.

Now, he has an even bigger worry: being forced to go back amid the worst border tensions in years.

"I can't take my small children to a place where their lives are tougher and in danger, even if that is our motherland," he said this week in his three-room home in Utmanzai, a dusty refugee camp with more than 300 mud-brick houses near the border with Afghanistan.

Mr Said initially fled when the Soviet Union invaded in 1980.

He is among at least 1.5 million documented refugees who are caught in the middle of a wider spat involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States that escalated after an American drone killed Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour last month.

Pakistan is threatening to deport all of the refugees by the end of this month, a move that risks leading to a humanitarian disaster in what would be one of the biggest forced repatriations in decades.

Besides the 1.5 million documented refugees, Pakistan says another 1.5 million Afghans are in the country with no legal status. Only about a third of all documented Afghans in Pakistan live in 54 United Nations-monitored refugee villages.

Many analysts see the threat as merely rhetorical, given that Pakistan has failed to enforce previous deportation deadlines. Yet after Mansour's death on Pakistani soil - as well as a US move to withhold subsidies for F-16 fighter jets - the warning sends a message to American policymakers who see Islamabad's leaders as a hindrance to peace: Pakistan is essential to any deal.

"Both sides are playing their cards," said Mr Mansur Khan Mahsud, director of the FATA Research Centre in Islamabad.

The mentality in Pakistan, he said, is that "if you are building pressure, I'll do the same to counter you".

At face value, Pakistan's moves reflect concerns over Islamic militants crossing the porous border that has been disputed ever since Sir Mortimer Durand helped draw it up in 1893, when Britain ruled much of South Asia. Many Afghan refugees have been in Pakistan for decades, and international funding for them has fallen as crises erupted in Syria and Iraq.

Besides the 1.5 million documented refugees, Pakistan says another 1.5 million Afghans are in the country with no legal status. Only about a third of all documented Afghans in Pakistan live in 54 United Nations-monitored refugee villages.

"The return of Afghan refugees is part of the border management programme," Pakistan military spokesman Asim Bajwa told reporters on Wednesday in Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad. "They have been here for 36 years and most of them are living outside camps in an unregulated manner. We want them to go back."

About a week after Mansour's death, Pakistan tightened security at Torkham, the busiest border crossing with Afghanistan.

Tensions have escalated since, with sporadic fighting breaking out as Afghan soldiers look to prevent Pakistan from erecting a gate along the so-called "Durand Line". One soldier has been killed and another 19 injured.

Stuck in the middle are refugees like Mr Said who are scared to move back to Afghanistan.

The fight against the Taleban and other insurgent groups killed or wounded a record 11,000 civilians last year. At the same time, Afghanistan's economy is strained. Per capita income has fallen since 2012, and the International Monetary Fund expects that trend to continue this year.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Pakistan threatens to deport all refugees'. Print Edition | Subscribe