New and old Afghan refugees make the most of life in neighboring Pakistan

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A man sells poultry at the refugee market in Peshawar on June 17. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.
  • by Ashfaq Yusufzai (peshawar
  • Inter Press Service

Jabbar, who sells dried fruit in the Muhajir Bazaar (known as the “refugee market”) in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of Pakistan’s four provinces, said he had been unable to convince his relatives to leave their home. visits. country by the endless violence.

The latest in that series of events was the takeover by Taliban militants in August 2021, further compounding Jabbar’s fear that even he may not be able to visit his homeland again. At the same time, he acknowledges that Pakistan is now the family’s home and calls the locals “friendly.”

This South Asian country is home to 3.3 million registered refugees and more than double this number of unregistered refugees who have fled neighboring Afghanistan. Most of them run small businesses or do small odd jobs and transfer money to their relatives who stay over the border.

A vegetable seller in the same market, Hayat Shah, says business is going so well that he and his family never think about returning. “We are very happy that we live here in peace and earn money to survive. In Afghanistan people are facing an extremely difficult economic situation. My two sons and a daughter are studying at a local school here,” said Shah, 49.

“We arrived in Peshawar in early 1992 when our house was bombed by unknown people. My parents and two brothers died,” he adds.

Shah and his family live in the Baghlan camp in Peshawar, one of 3,500 refugee families in the camp (although the UNHCR now calls the camps “refugee villages”). There are 54 refugee camps across Pakistan – 43 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – housing 32 percent of refugees. According to UNHCR, more than two-thirds of refugees live in urban areas, where they are legally allowed to work.

Most Afghans interviewed by IPS in the market said they feel that Pakistan is now at home. Ninety percent of the traders in the sprawling market are Afghan businessmen who run clothing, seafood, meat, and fruit and vegetable stores. “The refugee bazar is bustling with Afghan women and men who buy everything,” says fruit seller Ghafoor Shah. “This market is no different from any other market in Afghanistan where you can see women dressed in burqas shopping,” he adds.

Sultana, 51, says she often visits the bazaar to shop for the Eidul Fitre Islamic festival, wedding ceremonies and other holidays. “We can find all kinds of articles that we need in accordance with Afghan traditions. We women can easily talk to Afghan shopkeepers and tailors in our own language compared to Pakistanis, with whom conversation is difficult.”

UNHCR spokesman for Pakistan, Qaisar Khan Afridi, told IPS that the arrival of new refugees after the Taliban took control in Kabul has caused major problems.

“More than 250,000 Afghans have reached here in the last 18 months – that’s just the registered refugees. The UN Refugee Agency is in talks with the host government to find a solution to the problem of these people who are not yet registered in Pakistan,” he says, adding: “Pakistan does not accept new refugees,” he adds. to.

The UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation program for refugees to Afghanistan has almost completely ground to a halt. As of January this year, only 185 families have returned, each receiving $250 in aid. Since 2002, approximately 4.4 million refugees have been repatriated.

Muhammad Hashim, a reporter for Shamshad TV station in Jalalabad, told IPS that the Taliban do not allow journalists to work freely and suspect anyone who was employed during the former government’s tenure. “I came to Pakistan with my wife and two daughters via return routes and now we are trying to apply for asylum in the US or any other European country. Going back is out of the question,” he told IPS, pending registration outside the UNHCR office in Peshawar.

Hashim, 41, says he survived an assassination attempt the day before leaving for Pakistan and left so quickly that his belongings remain in Afghanistan.

Female journalists sit at home, he adds. Hundreds of people who worked in the police force or in offices under the former Afghan government have also fled to Pakistan in fear of persecution from the Taliban, he said. “Violence and lack of jobs, education and health facilities are haunting the people.”

Teacher Mushtari Begum, 39, is one of the new refugees. “I did a master’s degree in computer science from Kabul University and taught at a private girls’ school for eight years. Now the women’s schools are closed and teachers and students are at home,” said Begum, a mother of two. “We are temporarily living with relatives in Peshawar and are short of money,” she added.

On June 12, the Pakistani government approved a policy of issuing transit visas to Afghan asylum seekers, allowing them to travel to any country of their choice. At the same time, the federal cabinet said Pakistan has always welcomed refugees and would continue to host them in their difficult times.

Gul Rahim, who drives a taxi in the Nowshera district near Peshawar, says he arrived here in 2002 and was lucky enough to raise his two sons. “Pakistan has been a blessing to me. In Afghanistan I would not have been able to raise my sons, who now teach at a refugee school and help me financially.”

Fazal Ahmed, a local official at the Afghan Commissioners in Peshawar, which oversees all refugee camps in the province, says they hold awareness sessions for refugees from time to time on issues such as violence and gender, health and education. “We also run skills development programs in more than 30 refugee camps, especially to empower women.

“Sports activities are part of our program, which we organize in collaboration with the UNHCR,” he says. Afghan students have also been admitted to Pakistani schools, universities and medical colleges, he adds.

However, not everything is good. Many refugees complain of being harassed by the police, a charge vehemently denied by the authorities.

“We arrived here in February 2022 for fear of reprisals by the Taliban. We have no documents because Pakistan does not register new refugees and the police often arrest us and release us only if we pay bribes,” said Usman Ali, who worked as a police officer in the former government in Kabul. Ali, 24, said his older brother, a former army soldier, was killed by the Taliban in December 2021.

“To save my life, I ran to the Pakistan border on a passenger bus and ended up in Peshawar,” he added.

Local government official Jehanzeb Khan tells IPS that Afghans are treated like guests. “There are isolated cases of Afghans being mistreated by the local population, but we take action when complaints are made,” he says.

On Nasir Bagh Road, where Ali sells cosmetics from a pushcart, police officer Ahmad Nawaz told IPS that they only arrest Afghans involved in crimes and are kind to innocent people. “The Afghans are committing robberies and even murders and are going back to Afghanistan. We don’t bother the Afghans (who live here) because they are in trouble,” added Nawaz.

© Inter Press Service (2022) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service



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