Following the 1978 Saur Revolution in Afghanistan and the subsequent Soviet invasion, Pakistan received 5 million Afghan refugees across its porous shared border. These numbers fluctuated with the “liberation” of Afghanistan—first from the Soviets and, more recently, the U.S.-led coalition—as most Afghan refugees returned home, but others did not. Consequently, Pakistan still has roughly 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees, with estimates of another 0.7 million who are unregistered. Authorities have attempted to address this, in collaboration with the UNHCR, through Afghan Citizenship Cards and Proof of Registration drives, to mixed results, as many undocumented scattered across Pakistan are unwilling to cooperate. A key Pakistani complaint amidst this is the lack of acknowledgment over its hosting of this immense burden.
Many refugees who reached Pakistan availed educational opportunities in the country, proving most beneficial for girls. They have also benefited from vocational training and skill-development, both with and without UNHCR support, resulting in Afghan girls and women securing gainful employment from various businesses, especially in the industrial hub of Karachi. Pakistan has similarly used its meager resources to provide refugees with healthcare facilities, especially in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, which their homeland lacks after decades of conflict.
Such efforts are rarely acknowledged, however, with Pakistan often painted a villain by global media. This trend has only worsened after the incumbent interim government implemented an ongoing drive requiring all migrants to either hold proper documentation or return home. The Human Rights Watch has accused the drive of “widespread abuses against Afghans,” alleging authorities have carried out mass detentions, seized property and livestock, and destroyed identity documents to force the return of refugees and asylum-seekers. The UNHCR, too, has urged restraint warning that even registered refugees and other Afghans with legal documents are under pressure to leave Pakistan. This absolutely requires investigation and is intolerable, but cannot be a pretext to abandon efforts to police the Durand Line, which has remained porous for a majority of Pakistan’s existence.
The irreducible truth is that Pakistan should be able to guard its Afghan frontier the way it guards its border with India. This is no easy task, given the terrain and a resistance to change, as obvious from ongoing protests seeking an end to newly introduced documentation requirements for trade and travel. Only through ensuring a bar on illegal entry can Pakistan proceed toward a future peace; managing the border would be a significant first step in achieving that.