“Would you punish all of us if two out of a hundred Afghan refugees were involved in crimes?” says Basit Afghan.
Basit is one of the millions of Afghan citizens who were displaced by the war in neighbouring Afghanistan. He came to Pakistan in 1987.
Around 2.3 million Afghans ‘refugees’ are living in cities across Pakistan. According to the UNCHR, 1.4 million are registered with the government and the rest are undocumented.
“Our families have been living in Pakistan since 1979 but there were no attacks in any cities till 2001,” he says. “How could we think ill of a country that fed our children and their children?”
Basit hopes that their hard times will finally be over as Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that the government will grant citizenship to Afghan, Bengali-speaking and Burmese refugees.
Imran Khan’s decision has been met with skepticism by those who have little or no knowledge of how Afghans are contributing to Pakistan’s economy and development.
The criticism forced Mr Khan to take a U-turn. Now, the prime minister says all political stakeholders will be “taken into confidence” before he makes a final decision. Those words signal a roll-back in what many people saw as true change in Pakistan’s policy on undocumented people.
“Afghan refugees brought weapons and drug culture to Pakistan,” says Haris, a Karachi university student. “They are nothing but a burden on our economy.” They should not be given citizenship, he adds.
This is the kind of thinking that needed to change given the realities.
The student’s opinion was dismissed by Dr Shazia Tabassum, a professor at KU’s International Relations’ department. Afghans do business in Pakistan and their contribution to the country’s economy can’t be ignored, she says.
The decision should have been taken years ago, she adds, referring to PM Khan’s announcement.
Tabassum argues that granting citizenship will give refugees legal status and it will help the government make clear economic and law and order policies.
Junaid Ismail, the president of the Pak-Afghan Joint Chamber of Commerce, says Afghans started their businesses in Karachi and Peshawar after they migrated to Pakistan. They invest their money in Pakistan and earn money but they can’t even open bank accounts in the country.
“Afghan businessmen have requested the Chamber of Commerce a number of times to raise this issue with the government,” Ismail says. “There is nothing wrong in giving them citizenship.”
He feels it would encourage more investment in Pakistan and Afghans would set up more factories. This would create jobs for everyone.
Others scoff at the perception that Afghans are a burden. One of them is Haji Abdullah, an Afghan elder at Al-Asif Square. “Just look at carpet sellers, most of them are Afghans,” he says. Afghans are a major part of the work force in Pakistan.
I don’t know why people associate the word ‘terrorism’ with us, he adds. “The Pakistan government and law-enforcement agencies should take action against Afghan refugees who are involved in crime,” Abdullah adds. “We will help the government identify miscreants. It’s our country.”