But the recent demonstration was a sign of bubbling discontent about Afghans in Pakistan, who comprise the world’s largest refugee population. While their presence has long been a source of tension, Pakistani politicians and the media are increasingly exaggerating their numbers and identifying them as a problem that must be solved as the neighboring nations eye the finale of the U.S.-led Afghan war, remote as that seems for now.
On an official visit to Australia last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called on the international community to help repatriate Afghans, who he said were “causing numerous difficulties” and spreading polio. In a recent interview, Interior Minister Rehman Malik accused the refugees of being “involved in criminal activities,” and said sending Afghans home was among Pakistan’s priorities.
The spotlight on Afghan refugees comes as the ever-wary neighbors trade barbs about cross-border violence and a potential negotiated settlement to the war in Afghanistan. Afghan officials, like their U.S. counterparts, have blamed Pakistan for fueling the Taliban insurgency, a claim Pakistan denies. But Pakistan wants a key role in reconciliation, and the refugees — who by most accounts Pakistan has hosted fairly graciously — could provide leverage.
At the same time, persistent violence has led to a decrease in refugee returns to Afghanistan, and there is scant sign that those remaining will soon leave. Amid a failing economy and political jockeying ahead of 2013 elections in Pakistan, analysts say Afghans are convenient targets. Indeed, the argument here echoes the U.S. immigration debate, with concerns about foreigners who commit crimes, steal jobs and fail to assimilate.
“We have been treating them as our brothers,” said Sher Bahadur, 64, one Nowshera resident who joined the recent demonstration, which took place after a fight between Pakistanis and Afghans. “Now the situation is so bad that we fear they have the might, power and resources to displace us.”
The complaints are not new, but the tenor has alarmed Afghan officials. One senior Afghan official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Pakistan is showing “early signs of new pressure” over refugees. The official said it was unclear whether the motivation is a desire to see Afghans leave, win additional refugee aid or blame Afghans for Taliban activity inside Pakistan.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees live in Pakistan; the government says the figure is around 2 million. Another 1 million are believed to be in Pakistan illegally, said Habibullah Khan, secretary of the government’s States and Frontiers Regions Division. In the first 10 months of 2011, 43,000 Afghan refugees returned home, a figure that was 59 percent lower than the same period last year, the UNHCR said.